Saturday, February 26, 2022



One of Michels observations is undoubtedly true. Only a minority is ever involved. But this fact does not mean the “iron law” is inevitable. Cooperatives or strata councils are run by a small group and usually a minority attends the mass meetings. As long as these groups are governed according to the wishes of the membership, this minority situation holds sway. However, should the executive decide to act contrary to the wishes of the membership, people come out of the woodwork, vote down the proposal and elect a new executive. These changes can occur as long as the structure of the organization allows it. If there are clauses in the organizations constitution that limit the powers of the membership, then the leadership will have its way, and the iron law is functioning.

Here are two examples, one positive, one negative. A Vancouver credit union was taken over by individuals who used the institution for speculation in real estate. Members rallied and eventually voted out the speculators and returned the institution to its original mandate. Mountain Equipment Coop was taken over by a group that grossly overextended the business leading to bankrupsy. They decided to sell the coop to an American corporation. The membership revolted and tried to stop this. But unfortunately there was a clause that allowed the leadership to ignore the the membership and so the coop was sold, in spite of the membership's wishes. Hence structure matters and the iron law can be offset.

Michels lumps syndicalism in with regular trade unions and political parties as being subject to the iron law. We have to remember that when he wrote POLITICAL PARTIES the syndicalist movement was only about sixteen years old. Later syndicalists would learn from the mistakes of the early movements. The French CGT soon developed a self-perpetuating leadership. Leon Jouhaux led the union for 40 years and other syndicalist leaders spent decades in office.

Later syndicalist unions like the IWW introduced term limits to prevent the formation of a permanent leadership clique. One's office was limited to two terms of a year, and then you could not run again for five years. Michels complaint might be that term limits would harm the organization by eliminating skilled experienced leaders. But these people did not disappear. They were always there for advice if needed, and furthermore assumed other important, but non-executive roles. These included traveling delegates,organizers, public speakers, and writers. Like Indigenous Elders, they had input, but no executive power.

Michels wrote of how the party or union, to be effective needed certain skilled, educated individuals. These became the core of the bureaucracy and eventually led to a more conservative outlook on the part of the institution. The IWW simply contracted lawyers and accountants, using them for their advice and skills, but not making them part of the union structure.

Throughout the history of the IWW various groups have tried to take over the organization, and thus establish elite control, but have never succeeded. The reason for this failure is the union structure. It is first and foremost highly decentralized. Each branch is semi-autonomous. The only way the IWW could pull a branch charter (dissolving the branch) would be if the group acted totally contrary to the constitution of the union. Each branch freely elects its officers and delegates on an annual basis. Each year there is a Convention of the union and each branch elects delegates to it, the number dependent upon the size of the branch. The role of the Convention delegate is to carry out the will of the branch they represent. There are also term limits as to convention delegates. The Convention does not decide the union policies. They merely discuss the proposed amendments and policies – which have been sent in by the membership – and develop them into a workable “package” that the membership as a whole – by secret ballot – will then vote on later that year at the same time they also vote in the new General Executive Board. Hence the IWW, and similar syndicalist unions, have avoided the rule of a clique, the formation of a bureaucracy and the eventual rejection of its radical syndicalist policies for conservative unionism. At the same time, it is not a fossil from 1905, but has changed as is needed, without forgetting its essential attributes.

As well as the IWW there is also the example of the International Typographical Union. Seymour Martin Lipset analyzed this union in UNION DEMOCRACY. A number of factors counter-acted the iron law. “The first and perhaps most important has to do with the way the union was founded. Unlike many other unions... organized from the top down, the ITU had a number of large, strong, local unions who valued their autonomy, which existed long before the international was formed. This local autonomy was strengthened by the economy of the printing industry which operated in largely local and regional markets... Large locals continued to jealously guard this autonomy against encroachments by international officers. Second, the existence of factions helped place a check on the oligarchic tendencies that existed at the national headquarters. Leaders that are unchecked tend to develop larger salaries and more sumptuous lifestyles, making them unwilling to go back to their previous jobs. But with a powerful out faction ready to expose profligacy, no leaders dared take overly generous personal remuneration.” 1.

The social movements of the 21st Century practice both “talking circles” and consensus. Of course, these tend to be ad hoc rather than permanent organizations, but it is not difficult to see how these procedures can counteract the iron law. By consensus, I mean “modified consensus” - not full consensus where one individual can block the proceedings, a situation untenable in large gatherings. The talking circle entails everyone having input, no one can hold down the floor as speaking time is limited, and no one may speak again until all others have. With consensus, the only policies adopted are those that have the overwhelming agreement of the whole group. It is not hard to see how such methods when used in permanent organizations would prevent the formation of dominant cliques and the imposition of policies contrary to the wishes of the membership.

Anarchists did not need Michels to tell them about the problems of organization. Indeed, they knew about the “iron law” well before it was coined as a term. It is precisely methods of organization that separated the Marxian socialists from the libertarian socialists. Socialist and Marxist Leninist groups and parties have for some strange reason ignored POLITICAL PARTIES. The result has been an on-going move toward the right among mass-based parties, cultism and/or factionalism among the smaller groups. None seem able to question the structure or procedures of their organizations. They search for excuses outside of their sect, but never themselves. Hence they are doomed to be either capitalist reformists or generals without an army.

The German Green Party initially was aware of the problems of organization, being influenced by anarchism. However, the rotation of MPs, decentralization and consensus seemed incompatible with a functioning parliamentary party. Thus, the Greens moved in the direction of a more conventional form of internal politics. The Green experience indicates that the parliamentary system is ultimately incompatible with a more developed and inclusive form of democracy.



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