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Towards an anarcho-syndicalist strategy for Africa

category international | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis author Friday September 21, 2007 20:02author by Jonathan - ZACF Report this post to the editors

This article looks at the possibilities and opportunities for spreading anarchist ideas in Africa through the intervention of anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists from abroad, by building pragmatic solidarity, and supporting African trade unions and other movements of the workers and poor.

It highlights some factors which need to be taken into consideration when doing so, and makes some suggestions towards developing an anarcho-syndicalist strategy for Africa.

Between 28th April and 1st of May 2007 about 250 militants from five different continents came together in Paris, France for the CNT-F organised International Syndicalist Conference i07, a follow-up to the industrial Syndicalist Conferences held in San Francisco, USA, in 1999, called i99, and that held in Essen, Germany in 2002, called i02.

The goal of the meetings was to share experiences, debate and to start rebuilding links between different organisations and uniting workers of different countries, to appropriate the means of information, struggle and action by organising international solidarity against capitalist domination and exploitation. The weekend included discussions, workshops and debates dealing with syndicalist issues (co-operatives, repression, representativity, the European Union, casualised and unprotected labour, and relocation...) as well as social issues (anti-sexism, the campaign against Coca-Cola, migrant workers, anti-fascism, housing struggles, anti-imperialism and neo-colonialism...). Branch meetings (metallurgy, education, construction, postal services, health, culture, archeology...) and meetings devoted to geographical regions (Palestine, Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Mediterranean zone) also took place. The conference ended with an anarchist/ anarcho-syndicalist/ syndicalist bloc of about 5,000 participants from every corner of the globe at the May 1st demonstration in Paris.

What is particularly interesting to us, and the focus of this article, is that, for the first time, the Industrial Syndicalist Conference had a significant African presence this year, with delegates representing trade unions from Algeria (Snapap), Morocco (UMT, CDT, ANDCN, poor peasants, FDR-UDT), Tunisia (CGTT), Guinea (CNTG, CEK, SLEG), Ivory Coast (CGT-CI), Djibouti (UDT), Congo DRC (LO), Mali (Cocidirail, Sytrail), Benin (FNEB, UNSTB, AIPR), Burkina Faso (UGEB, CGT-B, AEBF) and Madagascar (Fisemare).

The politics of the workers’ CGT-B and the students’ UGEB from Burkina Faso are described by the CNT-F as “class struggle, revolutionary syndicalism from a Marxist point of view”. In a similar way the Madagascan Fisemare is described as an independent Marxist revolutionary union, while the Algerian Snapap is independent but not revolutionary, although it is of interest because it opposes what used to be the only union in the country, the UGTA. The Guinean CNTG is the biggest union in the country, affiliated to the mainstream International Trade Union Confederation, and won a big strike this year. A representative from a Guinean students’ union-in-exile was also present at i07 and the CNT-F has said that the Cocidirail and Sytrail railway unions in Mali, affiliated to the main Mali union the UNTM, are very solid comrades. The UNSTB in Benin used to be a Marxist union linked to the state during the socialist period of that country and as a result is rather reformist. There was also a “very strange union” from the DRC Congo, Lutte Ouvrière, which the CNT-F says they needed to see “on the field” to assess their politics properly. The Congolese do, however, have links on their website to the CNT-F and fellow syndicalist unions the Spanish CGT and Swedish SAC. The CGT-Liberte and the public sector CSP from Cameroon were unable to attend because of visa problems, but they are “very interesting” according, once again, to the CNT-F.

As seen by the preceding breakdown the African delegates present, entirely paid for by the CNT, seemed all to have come from a range of independent and radical unions influenced by Marxism, and it is interesting to consider what might have attracted them to attend an anarcho-syndicalist conference, and what this means for creating an opening for spreading libertarian socialist ideas in Africa. One cynical participant commented that they got the feeling that a lot of these people where present because the CNT wanted to have a big impressive event, and that they invited organisations to participate which they would otherwise have been a lot more wary of had they been from Europe. I don’t think that that is quite the case however – that the CNT was doing it for show – and either way, it is crucially important for militants from a libertarian socialist tradition to engage with organisers from Africa coming from an authoritarian socialist (Marxist or otherwise) tradition. The reason being that one needs to consider the context in which their political identity would have developed, bearing in mind that there is very little libertarian socialist tradition in Africa as a whole, and that many people on the continent with Leftist inclinations would invariably have been attracted to authoritarian/ statist models of socialism and Marxist ideas or, for example, the type of “African socialism”, as practiced notably in Tanzania and that was explicitly anti-Marxist, as that was all that most were exposed to.

It is also important to note that “African Socialism” has been tried and found wanting, and that radical Leftists in Africa might be becoming disillusioned with mainstream state socialism and be looking around for alternatives. Perhaps this is what attracted the African delegates to i07? Perhaps they feel so isolated and in such a desperate situation that activists from a statist orientation are willing to try anything to garner some support from the international community. Or perhaps they were all, as with the delegate from Burkina Faso, just there to learn.

Whichever the case may be, it is a sound strategy for the French CNT to be in contact with these groups as it helps to facilitate a dialogue about forms of organisation, visions of the type of society we want to create and it allows for the building of solidarity struggles between groups in the so-called first and third worlds. Hopefully those delegates who attended from Africa would have learnt something and have been inspired by the anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist movements they encountered. I strongly feel that the CNT-F has taken an initiative that I would love to see being followed by the other more developed and stronger anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groupings and movements, with the capacity to do so, from the former colonial regimes.

There is also, encouragingly, another similar initiative to i07, the “International conference on the coordination of base unionism and social connection in Europe and the Maghreb” being organised by the Spanish CGT, due take place in Malaga on 28, 29 and 30 September 2007. According to the CGT “a network of relations, information and solidarity actions has been developing between organisations on the northern and southern sides of the Mediterranean…” and these meetings will have the “objective of opposing the current neo-liberal politics […]The principal objective is not to share long expositions on the different problems, but to achieve a consensus to establish some minimum agreements that will allow us to develop actions in a way that shows a clear and organised response to neo-liberalism”.

The legacy of Marxism and the Soviet Union is fading into history, and as a result, there is a vacuum of ideas in the African Left. At such a time it is crucial for anarchists to step in and try to fill this vacuum, at a point when people may be looking for alternatives and might be open to libertarian socialist ideas. Anarchists should not be sectarian about their engagement with the broader African Left as, without a doubt, if we fail to take the initiative and try to fill the vacuum of ideas with a libertarian socialist - or more specifically an anarchist communist alternative, the larger and still, regrettably, better organised authoritarian socialists will certainly seize the opportunity to provide material and ideological support to the African trade unions, social and anti-globalisation movements who, often desperate and uneducated as to the flaws of state socialism, will take whatever help they can get.

If, however, anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groups abroad are going to try and develop contacts with unions in Africa, and try to spread anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist tactics and ideas, they would need to have a strategy for doing so. One key point to note however, when embarking on this strategy, is that every effort must be made to try to make contact with the rank-and-file workers, not the union bureaucrats, or to try and ensure that union leaders disseminate the information and ideas they receive from anarchists abroad at the base. They would need to make a commitment to persistence and patience in building such networks. It would also be advisable for delegates to be sent to Africa to make direct contacts with African organisers and in order to gauge the impact of their attempts, adjust and revise strategies where necessary, and measure the adequacy of the dissemination of their materials, via the union leaders or contact persons, at the base.

Another point worth noting is that - given the small size of the African working class, high levels of unemployment and relative lack of industrialization - anarchist intervention from abroad in industrial struggles, and the cultivation of anarcho-syndicalist tendencies alone in Africa is not sufficiently going to help spread anarchist ideas on the continent, and special attention should also be paid to ways and means of carrying industrial struggles into communities. In order to effectively spread anarchist ideas across the continent, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists should not confine themselves to industrial struggles, but should try to find ways for taking up and supporting social and community struggles in the industrial arena, as well as encouraging workers who may become influenced by anarcho-syndicalist ideas to try and take these ideas back to their communities, and organise there too.

The CNT-F have already taken libertarian socialist debate on Africa significantly forward with the publication of what was intended to be Zabalaza’s sister journal, the French-language Africa-focused journal Afrique XXI, and I hope that measures are being taken to ensure that this publication finds a decent circulation in Africa and that it is not confined to the Francophone African immigrant communities in Europe (although its circulation there would also serve to spread libertarian socialist ideas amongst African immigrants to Europe who, in turn, could send such ideas back home). It should be noted, though, that this journal is not produced by the CNT-F alone, and that there are also some groups and organisations that do not come from the libertarian tradition, which might moderate its message to a degree – but which also ensure a wider readership than a purely anarchist journal would reach.

Given the scarcity of known libertarian socialist socio-political traditions in Africa, which were mainly confined to North and southern Africa and its small and thinly spread anarchist movement, the support and intervention of anarchists coming from regions with more developed anarchist traditions is vital for the spread of the anarchist idea on the continent. In particular the anarchists of the former colonial powers (who have the advantage of linguistic and cultural ties with Africa) should try to support the growth of anarchism in Africa. Also, sharing experiences of struggle and methods of anarchist organisation under similar socio-economic conditions, such as in Latin America or other parts of the developing world, would be very beneficial.

To this end we need to consider a few things:

1. How can anarchists abroad work with, and assist, existing anarchist groups and individuals in Africa?
2. How can they establish and maintain contacts with African trade unions, social movements and Left-wing groups?
3. What are the priorities when doing so: to spread anarchist awareness; to support existing struggles (materially, ideologically or through solidarity actions); or to counter authoritarian traditions?
4. How can they embark on joint international campaigns involving African groups?
5. How can they show practical solidarity with African struggles?
6. How can they work towards turning single-issue and reformist campaigns and struggles into revolutionary movements and promote horizontal, egalitarian, participatory democracy?

When engaging with African trade unions and trying to facilitate the establishment of an anarcho-syndicalist presence on the continent, it is wise to avoid or to set aside the sectarian infighting which has plagued certain sectors of the movement thus far. In the old debate of whether or not anarchists should bore-from-within existing unions, to organise inside or work alongside existing and probably reformist unions, what must be avoided in the African context is the “purist” line (which argues against this boring-from-within), which does not work except in very particular circumstances – which don’t obtain in Africa at present. The hard reality in Africa is that the purist position of trying to establish new, specifically anarchist unions will probably fail – until such time as there is a significant growth in the African anarchist movement itself. Until then, new anarcho-syndicalist formations are likely to remain isolated, numerically and strategically insignificant – if not totally ineffectual.

To conclude, there are two possible options that may contribute to spreading the ideas and methods of anarcho-syndicalism in Africa. The first is for Africa-based anarchists to agitate for anarcho-syndicalism either within existing unions or, possibly at a later stage, by trying to set-up new unions along anarcho-syndicalist lines from scratch. The second and more viable option – because of the insignificant number of organised anarchists in Africa and their relative lack of capacity – is for anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists from abroad to intervene and assist by trying to establish contacts and build pragmatic solidarity with any existing African unions – preferably independent and revolutionary ones where possible.

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author by Wayne Price - NEFACpublication date Sun Sep 23, 2007 04:58author email drwdprice at aol dot comReport this post to the editors

Extremely interesting report. One of the most exciting things of my life has been to see anarchist ideas spread in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A comment and a question:
(1) I would not *necessarily* be concerned whether activists regard themselves as Marxists. It all depends on what they mean by that. There is a great deal of overlap between class struggle anarchism and a libertarian and humanistic Marxism. Traditionally Marxist movements have either been revolutionary statists but overtly anti-working class, or (like the SACP) working class-based but overtly reformist and in favor of traditional capitalism. If these unionists are both working class-based and revolutionary, then we have a lot in common.
(2) It is not clear from the report where these unionists stand on a dual orientation (neo-platformism/especifismo). Do they see themselves as just building militant unions or are they (also) for building autonomous organizations of revolutionaries? I imagine there is a range of opinions.

author by Jonathanpublication date Sun Oct 14, 2007 15:08Report this post to the editors

I agree that it is not so important what these groups/activists call themselves, if anything at all, but what they do and how. Unfortunately though I don’t know much about the details of their activites and practices on the ground, and was relying on the CNT-F for descriptions. It will be interesting to see how things develop, but I think it very encouraging that they have established these contacts.

As far as I know these unions are at the moment new to the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism, and I am not sure how many self-defined anarchists there are, if any. I highly doubt, also because the CNT is probably their main point of contact with anarchist ideas, that they are as yet looking towards building any anarchist specific organisations. I think that the CNT is doing great work in getting anarcho-syndicalist ideas across, but it would also be important I think for Alternative Libertaire, for example as we are speaking about Francophone Africa, to try and establish contacts with union militants who show an interest in anarchism, explain the necessity of anarchist specific organisations and encourage the building of such. Again it remains to be seen how things develop but, of course, any platformist/ especifista organisations that are in a position to do so should really try to demonstrate the necessity of the anarchist specific organisation, and where possible facilitate the building of these.

author by mitch - WSA (per. cap.)publication date Thu Nov 08, 2007 21:54author email wsany at hotmail dot comReport this post to the editors

Dear ZACF comrades,

Very informative and observation seem right on.

I hope to further comment on your piece in the next few days and some of the specifics contained therein.


As I am only writing in an individual capacity, I can say that the WSA has taken an active role in trying to build international links for decades, particularly in the "third world". In Africa our efforts were aimed at the then emerging independent black and bi-racial S. African unions. Contact in Nigeria further allowed us to pursue relations there.
We very active role in helping to establish anarchist links with the Awareness League.

Our linkage and campaigning was mainly done in the pre-internet days. Those we were in contact with were working/living under some harsh conditions---apathied and military dictatorship.

For the moment let me say that the possibilies of making contact and gauging on-the-ground situations are much more advanced and possible than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. As our ability then was much more advanced than in previous decades.

That said most technologies (computers/internet) are probably still limited to "head offices" and the problems with rank-&-file contact may still be hampered somewhat.

I want to close this brief email with the following comment: expectations. Everyone has a certain expectation. We found that many of our southern comrades believed that the northern movement is flush with tremendous resources and numbers. Some in the north expect that our southern comrades to be more "advanced" in the nuances and ideology of anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist ideas. These expectations can lead to a certain "let down" effect on both accounts. Finding a way to limit this effect is important.

More to follow.


author by Jonathan - ZACF (personal capacity)publication date Thu Nov 08, 2007 23:31Report this post to the editors

The issue of expectations, raising them - even unintentionally - and letting people down is certainly an important one. Even in our own experience some contacts on the continent have been under the false impression that, maybe because we are from the industrial capital of the continent, we are in a position to provide all kinds of material assistance which are, actually, beyond our capacity.

We should probably all be careful in our international relations, and always be clear, open and honest about what we can and what we can't (or will and won't) do; so as to try and avoid situations where potential allies become frustrated with us either because of a misunderstanding of what external comrades can offer in terms of material and practical support, or owing to unfair and unrealistic expectations.

On this issue, it is also important that we try to nurture a proper understanding of our aims and ideas; helping non-anarchist contacts to understand that what we are trying to do takes time, that the idea is paramount, and that no amount of material assistance is going to be of lasting benefit if the ideas are lacking.

Thanks for raising a very important point Mitch, looking forward to further comments.

author by mitch - WSA (per cap)publication date Fri Nov 09, 2007 14:14Report this post to the editors

Jonathan writes:

"On this issue, it is also important that we try to nurture a proper understanding of our aims and ideas; helping non-anarchist contacts to understand that what we are trying to do takes time, that the idea is paramount, and that no amount of material assistance is going to be of lasting benefit if the ideas are lacking."

I think many comrades from "advanced" and longstanding organizations and traditions oft times think anarchist babies fall out of the womb. I think the only places where I've actually met multi-generations of anarchists was in France and Spain. Envy, envy.

I remember a criticism some years ago of the then developing Awareness League by a European anarchist comrade. The criticism was aimed at the AL's rather neutral position concenring the 1993 elections. While the critism was ideogoically correct, I felt, it was inappropriate to do so publically (in a national newspaper) and without making any effort to understand the AL, the Nigerian context and the growing pains of an organization that had no real and meaningful experiance with anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism ---- or anarchists.

Our comrades will make mistakes, for sure. Our comrades need to learn the basics and how to apply them constructively. This doesn't fall from thin air and, I strongly believe, we need to be patient and help the process along. in as comradely a manner possible.

Sure there will be opportunists along the way. We must be aware of this. But for those who are sincere in their desire to work with and build their concsious understanding of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, we should help the best we can. And we must be patient and take a long term view.

Gotta run.

author by Jonathan - ZACFpublication date Mon Jan 14, 2008 19:20Report this post to the editors

This may be of interest:

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author by mitch - WSA (per. cap)publication date Mon Jan 14, 2008 22:02author email wsany at hotmail dot comReport this post to the editors

Thanks for the interesting piece blackstone.

Just curious why you chose Senegal? Understanding that the conditions are terrible, is there a movement from below now underway in Senegal? A movement in the health sector advocating such a self-managed system?

Thanks for the reply.

author by blackstonepublication date Thu Jan 24, 2008 01:45Report this post to the editors

Thanks for the interesting piece blackstone.

Just curious why you chose Senegal? Understanding that the conditions are terrible, is there a movement from below now underway in Senegal? A movement in the health sector advocating such a self-managed system?

Thanks for the reply.

As noted in the article, Senegal is situated in West Africa and similar to most Sub-Saharan countries in Africa, Senegal suffers from numerous health problems typically associated with severe poverty.

The article is a draft, one of a series of papers focusing on how libertarian syndicalism can be beneficial to Africa. This paper, i wanted to focus on the Health industry and a potential creation of a Health/Sanitation Council in African state suffering numerous health problems, in this case Senegal.

I wanted to list the health concerns of Senegal, what libertarian socialism entails, what institutions and values can be created and how and in what way this would benefit Senegal and a potential strategy to achieve it.

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