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The WSM and Anarchism: A Political Analysis August 17, 2012

Posted by irishelectionliterature in The Left.

Fascinating and detailed account of the WSM with some interesting comments underneath.

The WSM and Anarchism: A Political Analysis

Had posted the link in the What You Want To Say Open Thread and it was suggested that it would make a post itself as it gives a huge amount of detail about one of the more prominent but less discussed Irish left activist groups.


1. RosencrantzisDead - August 17, 2012

A good article. As one of the commenters points out, many of the problems the author experienced seem to be endemic to the left as a whole. The natural or classical homes for left activism have been appropriated by mainstream parties. Many of the unions are dominated by Fianna Fail and the like. However, the WSM, according to this account, does seem to suffer from some peculiar deficiencies in tis ability to organise or form a long lasting grouping.

I should add that I did find bits slightly heartening. In particular, the author’s view of ‘lifestylism’ (a term which I had not come across before) reassured me that I was not the only person who thought this. The bit about modernising the language is also something I have been thinking about a lot lately.


Mark P - August 17, 2012

Part of the point of the article is that those deficiencies flow from their particular political and organisational views – the stuff about decision making, or more precisely the failings of their decision making processes, is particularly unflattering.

“Lifestylism” is a recurrent debate on the more anarchoid end of the left, precisely because of the overlap of broadly “libertarian” politics with certain subcultural elements and because of the prestige that subculture gives to a politics of personal purity.

It’s worth noting that if this was an article about the Socialist Party, SWP or Workers Party, we’d be on about comment number 50 by now. It’s interesting that although the WSM are quite high profile for their numbers, at the same time they don’t seem to attract much interest, positive or negative.


RosencrantzisDead - August 17, 2012

I understand that their organisational structure, or rather lack thereof, compounded the problems that they experienced, but I would still say that trying to find a point or a group where mass mobilisation can occur is a problem. The CAHWT, obviously, is a vehicle for the SP, ULA, and other parties, but once that subsides, whether through death or victory, what happens then?

I would genuinely be surprised if ‘lifestylism’ in some shape or form did not permeate into other left groupings. Some people on here claim the SWP has a relatively high attrition rate due to burnout on the part of activists. Is this not indicative of a kind of lifestylism there?


Dr.Nightdub - August 17, 2012

I think “lifestylism” in the original article is more or less a polite word for crusties, whereas the burnout arising from relentless activism is an entirely different hand-crafted, biodegradeable kettle of free range, ocean-caught, non-dragnet-using, sustainable-farming fish.


RosencrantzisDead - August 17, 2012

Ahh. On second reading, you are correct.


Mark P - August 17, 2012

Lots of the time any small political organisation will be in a situation where mass mobilisation simply isn’t on the agenda, for reasons beyond the control of said small organisation. Quite often that means doing small scale work, holding your group together, recruiting in small numbers and waiting for better opportunities. The assumption that there is always a path to mass mobilisation, if somehow enough imagination or hard work is deployed, is consistently disastrous and leads to burning people out.

On the “lifestylism” point, DrN gets to the nub of it. Activism as a lifestyle is a real issue amongst people who are very committed to any political organisation (and not just left wing ones), but in this piece “lifestylism” in a more precise sense is the issue. Which is to say, people whose politics are founded in subcultural, drop out type attitudes, and who tend to see political activity as expressions of personal values rather than as actions taken to contribute to a political strategy. This is a recurrent (ie decade after decade) set of rows in anarchoid circles. It’s an issue for the WSM because they made a deliberate turn towards the kind of people who are interested in things like social centres, protest camps, alternative gardening, summit hopping, veganism etc.


Ed - August 17, 2012

“It’s worth noting that if this was an article about the Socialist Party, SWP or Workers Party, we’d be on about comment number 50 by now. It’s interesting that although the WSM are quite high profile for their numbers, at the same time they don’t seem to attract much interest, positive or negative.”

I think they don’t attract much animosity, which is a different thing (apart from the SWP, who really don’t seem to like anarchists, but SWP members don’t tend to post here). For reasons good or bad, there’s a lot of people with strongly critical views of the other groups ready to throw their oar in on the subject; not so many when it comes to the WSM (also I wonder how many people from the libertarian left read / comment on this blog – Chekov used to quite a bit but I haven’t seen him around in a long time – I suspect if WSM members are going to respond to this article they’ll do so in another forum, and that’s where the comments will be; it takes two or more to tango if you’re going to get a long comments thread going).

Personally I’d agree with a lot of the things James says in this article (although this would be based on outside observations rather than first-hand knowledge). But while I have some fundamental disagreements with the WSM’s politics, I certainly have no desire to give them a passing kick or pick over their bones – I’ve always had a lot of time for WSM activists, and not just on a personal level, they’ve usually had a healthy approach to the campaigns they’ve been involved in, promoting internal democracy, and a healthy approach to debates on the left, too, they don’t tend to go in for the sledgehammer-vs-nut approach. I’ve noticed on facebook several WSM members welcoming the article and promising to respond in a thoughtful way, which is not always the way things go when ex-members of a left group publish a critique of their former organisation.


Mark P - August 17, 2012

Sure, I’d go along with much of that.

The Socialist Party have what could be described as a working relationship with the WSM, where we disagree about a lot but are capable of reasonably productive cooperation with each other on areas of mutual concern without either group having to constantly be on guard for a knife between the shoulder blades. They are often wrong when it comes to strategy and proposals in campaigns, but they are generally sincere when they are wrong and aren’t looking for an opportunity to screw everyone else over for short term advantage.

You are right that there’s some animosity between the WSM and the SWP, and also right that the absence of SWP members from left wing internet sites means that we are unlikely to hear their views.

I’d be interested in Chekov and Alan’s views on the piece, as they both have commented here from time to time.


pat - August 17, 2012

It’s true that WSM members generally have a good approach when it comes to campaigns. Their participation in campaigns like the CAHWT seem to be carried out in a more personal, individual basis type of way – as opposed to an organised intervention as a group. They are usually good activists. That said you can tell a WSM member in a campaign by their consistent over focus on ‘democratic structure’ issues, and a weariness politics – there’s a certain tendancy to de-politicise issues.

On the structures point, the article by James O’Brien hits the nail on the head in highlighting this issue inside the WSM itself. This passage sums it up quite well:

“In addition, and related to that tendency towards formalism, wherever possible we attempted to replace individual judgment with detailed sets of rules. This was an anarchist solution to the conundrum of coping with organisational decisions affecting more than 10 people while preventing the emergence of a specific leadership.”

also this:

“But a malfunctioning Delegate Council where there isn’t much by way of political discussion, particularly given the high turnover and variable quality in its membership, might well maintain Anarchist observance of anti-hierarchical form but does so at the expense of being not much use and at the expense of failing to unify the diverse tendencies. It becomes mired in mechanically following the forms of democracy at the expense of substantive content.”


Mark P - August 17, 2012

Yes, it is interesting that anarchists tend in general towards structureless organising, with all the many and various problems that entails, but if they are sharp enough to avoid those pitfalls tend towards a rather extreme bureaucratism, with endless layers of formal procedure and rules. I don’t think it’s accidental either – as James notes in those passages it is inherent to an obsession with non-hierarchical organising. So they end up erecting safeguards against formal leadership which are also safeguards against effectiveness.


2. Mark P - August 17, 2012

On a completely separate point, I thought that the stuff about who and what forces to orient towards was very interesting.

It seems to me that those who favoured an orientation towards the “libertarian” / lifestyle / anarchoid / whatever milieu were right in the short term. This was where the WSM’s most open audience and easiest recruits were and it was this orientation that let them grow beyond a group of a dozen. This was almost certainly a better use of limited resources than a concentration on union work in a period when nothing was happening in the unions.

But the critics of the orientation were right in the longer term, in that prolonged contact with that milieu and an influx of new members with a background in or around it had a reshaping effect on the WSM’s own politics. Instead of recruiting, convincing the recruits of the WSM’s politics and then turning them towards other forms of activity, the existing priorities of the recruits became the priorities of the WSM and the orientation towards what is after all a small and marginal milieu became perpetual.


3. Mark P - August 17, 2012

It’s also worth noting that quite a number of the issues raised in the piece are issues for all radical groups and individuals.


WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2012



4. WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2012

I’ve read the original article and I think it’s a serious and extremely useful contribution to analysis on and of the Irish left, agree or disagree with aspects of it (and generally I think it’s spot on). I’d certainly have a few thoughts which I’ll post up next week and perhaps it will spark a further discussion where we can go into greater detail?


5. seedot - August 18, 2012

I got to know a lot of the wsm members and that wider ‘milieu’ in the period James talked about and while I wouldn’t have always agreed politically there was a culture of honest political reflection much of the time which this is definitely a good example of. I think, as Mark P says, this article is relevant for many radical groups both in organisational terms but also in the core political debate. I had a discussion with James where he gave me some of the background a few months ago so it was great he has put the time into writing the article.

Being heavily involved in Indymedia in the 02 – 06 period I would probably point to technical reasons for the failure of that project as much as organisational (the rest of the internet caught up, making it somewhat redundant) but I do remember some very difficult meetings that James was involved in where we tried to graft a complex organisational structure onto a loose collective – although I would posit this was a reflection of a decline rather than a cause.

One thing that interests me is the counterpoint of TU work and DA (this is obviously simplifying a more complex dynamic). Around the time of the DCTU / Occupy thing last year I was at a meeting in Seomra Spraoi with a trade unionist who had never been there before. The social centre was glibly described as ‘the place the anarchists went to after 2004’ which while not chronologically exact did reflect an inward / lifestylist turn that was visible from the periphery of the libertarian milieu. But I would be worried if the only alternative was to attempt to build a base in the Irish Trade Union movement given that movements depoliticisation and overall defanging during the last 20 years. I think any discussion on this article would need to look at the whole vanguard / mass party / mass organisation model which looks dated and perhaps redundant regardless where on the left a group is positioned.

I would have thoughts about alternative organising but would be very interesting in hearing others thoughts on the prospects of a politically relevant TU movement or other mass organisations given the changed nature of politics.

Ciaran Moore


WorldbyStorm - August 19, 2012

I’m very interested about the reaching towards alternative organising too. I sort of wonder what shape it would take.


seedot - August 20, 2012

Things like the range of counter institutions that are mentioned in Paul Masons Live Working Die Fighting would be an example (which can be mirrored closer to home in that 1880 – 1920 period) of organising that could studied. However this then brings up that whole lifestylism debate – if you went to a socialist school, read socialist papers, worked in a co-op and went to socialist recreational activities – were you not a lifestylist? Anarchism has more of a tendency to this, partly because of the idea of prefigurative organising, but the balance between building counter institutions and engaging in mass struggle is there in many movements. Also relevant are the p2p or commons movements with a very conscious attempt to construct an alternative narrative in the same way socialism created an alternative narrative from 1848 onwards. The idea of ‘commoners’ is generating a lot of online text at present – if it can break out of the somewhat arcane formulas it could be something to organise around. Even this and other blogs allow us to feel part of the same struggle (even if some of us are stalinist scum 😉 and are important in broader forms of organising.

The idea of Alan McSimoin fighting Kieran Allen for an education branch nomination to a SIPTU BDC being of any relevance to radical left politics is where I have a problem with the mythical TU orientation. If anything, the move of the anarchist bookfair to Liberty Hall is more interesting – but this was not mentioned at all in the article.

btw – anybody know who are the spiritofcontradiction people hosting the article – I had never heard of them before.


WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2012

Thanks a million for that seedot. A lot to think about there. But that makes sense what you’re saying about the possible way(s) forward. I take your point about lifestylism, I think it can be hard to break out of it whereever one is in contemporary consumer culture (albeit that seems like a contradiction in terms I think of what the article said about cycle couriers, some of whom I’ve known and it rings very true).

I’d also have some sympathy wiht your point re TU orientation. Is it quite enough? But that’s also a very very interesting point you make about the bookstore move.

Nah, I’d never heard of them. It’s an interesting site.


Mark P - August 20, 2012

I think that there’s a slight misrepresentation of the term “lifestylist” there, seedot.

The “problem” (and the term is generally used by people who think that there is a problem) is less with people living “alternative” lifestyles and more with people regarding those lifestyle choices as an important part of their politics, and in so far as they have a notion of political strategy in the first place, as an important part of their strategy.

You could quite conceivably be a dreadlock sporting, squatting, vegan, dumpster diving, community gardening, bongo playing, fire poi enthusiast without being a lifestylist in any meaningful sense, because you don’t think of any of that as having anything much to do with your ambitions to change the world. Although this might itself create some issues in terms of your political activity because your subcultural tendencies might make you seem strange or might make others assume a lot of things about where you stand. The core issue isn’t what your lifestyle is, but what role your lifestyle plays.

I think that you are correct to identify this debate as being particularly relevant to anarchism, and in particular to identify the link with the anarchist conception of “prefigurative politics”, which is ultimately highly compatible with “drop out” politics.

On the issue of a trade union orientation, I think that leftists have to distinguish between the kind of longer term orientation they would like, and the effective use of resources in the longer term. One of the reasons why the Socialist Party has been so heavily involved in community type activity for fifteen years or more is simply that a big concentration of resources on union work when nothing much is happening in the unions is a poor use of the resources of a small grouping.


WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2012

The “problem” (and the term is generally used by people who think that there is a problem) is less with people living “alternative” lifestyles and more with people regarding those lifestyle choices as an important part of their politics, and in so far as they have a notion of political strategy in the first place, as an important part of their strategy.

Entirely agree.


6. seedot - August 20, 2012

That is the standard definition Mark and having spent a bit of time in the libertarian ‘milieu’ it is something I would recognise (even from the less crusty elements). But could your exact formulation as quoted by wbs not be used about many who would choose to focus their political activism on building counter institutions. The co-operators classed as utopian socialists by marxists may have ended up wandering off into founding communes – but before that they built many of the organisations that gave strength and depth to the labour movement.

Would you class someone who sets up credit unions or community radio stations or consumer co-ops as their political strategy as a lifestylist? Is this not political organising?

I’ll come back again on the TU stuff – your points Mark make sense but even if a group had the resources I am not sure that a TU movement with private sector density under 25% in a very different industrial environment is really how we will organise the gravediggers of the bourgeoisie. Yes the TU leadership in Ireland is defeatist – but is the movement really the locus of real political power anymore? a combination of gloablisation and that consumer culture wbs mentions are part of this – but it would be good to hear an alternative case for working through the unions.


7. Alan MacSimoin - August 20, 2012

Lest anyone think that the minority in the WSM wanted to spend all their time in union committee meetings, no that wasn’t what it was about.

Yes, some of us were stewards and committee members – but that was a minor thing. It was more a case of believing that working class organisations have extremely cautious and often conservative leaderships because that generally represents the ideas of their members. If that wasn’t the case, we would expect a rebellion by the membership.

So, if we are to change the world we need to change the ideas people currently have. And the best place to do this is in mass organisations which exist because of the class struggle. That’s why we thought our unions, the bin tax struggle, the anti-household tax campaign were the place to put much of our energy; alongside explaining anarchism and conducting a ‘battle of ideas’.

The majority were not against any of this but their priority was working with the “activist” layer of people involved in things like Shell to Sea, the IWU and Seomra Spraoi. It reached a stage where there was no point in remaining in the same organisation, if the purpose of a political organisation is to concentrate our efforts.

They also – in my opinion – massively overestimated the support for socialist ideas among average Joes and Marys at the moment. Consequently, as I saw it, they identified organisational forms rather than political content as the biggest problem we face in progressive movements.

And, yes, it was a relatively amicable parting of the ways because we all still share a common end goal of anarchism/libertarian socialism. Our differences were about how to to get there.


Gavin Mendel-Gleason - August 21, 2012

“They also – in my opinion – massively overestimated the support for socialist ideas among average Joes and Marys at the moment. Consequently, as I saw it, they identified organisational forms rather than political content as the biggest problem we face in progressive movements.”

Yeah, I definitely agree with this. I think this actually is something that occurs very frequently when you have an activist milieu that also has its own relatively isolated subculture. Since all of your friends are sympathetic to socialism and radical and you rarely talk to people who aren’t you can get a sort of echo chamber effect and you can easily underestimate how far the broad population is from where you are at.

Activity in the mass organisations, and in the workplace and going door to door for the CAHWT and these sorts of things are excellent for jolting people back to the reality of where people are.


seedot - August 21, 2012

The conversation has obviously moved to the new thread – but I think its worth pointing out Alan that an amicable parting of the ways over a tactical difference is somewhat unusual on the left, in particular on the far left (Indymedia was riven by the echos of splits over must less significant differences, especially but not exclusively on the trotskyist left).

As I said above, one of the more attractive things about the culture of the WSM (or at least what was visible from the outside) was the fairly open and friendly political debate and this is to the credit of the many activists who contributed to this.


8. The WSM and Anarchism: A Political Analysis – Thinking about the unions… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - August 21, 2012

[…] lot of the piece by James O’Brien on the WSM has resonated with me. And I hope to consider parts of the […]


9. Andrew Flood (@andrewflood) - February 1, 2013

I’ve finally started publishing a detailed reply to James piece over at http://anarchism.pageabode.com/andrewnflood/wsm-history-reply-james-obrien


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