Anarchy through strict formal structures

published 30 Jan 2015
Glasgow Anarchist Meeting, 1915

In 1998 when I joined the Workers Solidarity Movement, it was firmly situated within the culture of the far left. This provided the organisation with conventions which structured its political activity: internal meetings, street paper-sales, public meetings, participation in demonstrations and protests, and involvement in left-wing trade unions and various ‘progressive’ campaigns - the avenues through which the far-left has traditionally sought to advance its politics.

Organisational Structure

The WSM’s organisational structure was based on the model developed within the workers’ movement of the early 20th century. Every member belonged to a branch, which met once a week and had its own officers: a branch secretary and treasurer. Branches also occasionally formed sub-committees to organise specific events or to draft documents. Above the branch level, the entire organisation met once every six months in a national conference, the WSM’s highest decision making body, which elected national officers – national secretary, treasurer, international secretary and occasionally others – and national sub-committees. There was a national sub-committee responsible for editing the organisation’s newspaper, Workers Solidarity, and another for editing the magazine, Red and Black Revolution. Other short-lived sub-committees were occasionally created to deal with specific events or to take responsibility for some area of the organisation’s activity which was deemed to need particular oversight.

The structure was slightly simpler than that of a typical trade union or mass workers party, where regional and sectoral-structures form an intermediate layer between the branches and the national organisation and a staff of full-timers are responsible for administration. These structures were, however, developed by organisations which had to cope with tens or hundreds of thousands of members. By contrast, when I applied to join, the WSM’s membership was at the historical high-point of 9 and for the great majority of its existence it had less than 7 members. There was a single branch - in Dublin - and a single member in Cork. It is no exaggeration to describe the WSM as an organisation with an extremely formal structure for its size.

Where the WSM diverged markedly from its far-left peers was in the relationship between the various officers and committees and the overall organisation. In the WSM, officers and committees had responsibilities but no authority. Their operational decisions were routinely reported, often debated and sometimes overruled by the bodies that had appointed them. This was generally considered a source of pride - an example of the organisation’s commitment to democracy.

Internal Meetings

Internal meetings were the bread-and-butter of WSM members’ political activity. There was a weekly 2 hour branch meeting – normally on a Tuesday evening – which all members were expected to attend. Branch meetings, like all WSM meetings, were extremely formal. At the start of each meeting, a chair and minute-taker would be chosen, with the roles being rotated to whoever had performed them least recently. The agenda was largely dictated in advance by policy documents that had been agreed in the past, which divided the meeting into chunks which were devoted to specific issues. The first half of each meeting was devoted to ‘business’ – with time allocated to discussing upcoming meetings, paper distributions, reviews of the paper’s contents and so on. The second half of each meeting was devoted to what was termed an ‘educational’. One member would be given the task of preparing a talk on a specific subject of interest to the group – which might cover anything from the Russian Revolution to Greenpeace. Each attendee had to indicate to the chair and wait for an invitation before speaking – and this was rigorously enforced – no interruptions were permitted. Speakers were strictly constrained to time limits and were discouraged from speaking more than once on any point. Anybody who made personalised comments, spoke out of turn, or strayed from rational, logical argument was likely to be admonished. Where there were minor disagreements on tactical matters – such as which day to hold a public meeting – these were resolved by voting through a show of hands. More substantial proposals for activity or for the organisation to take a collective position on any matter required a formal written motion – which would have to be ratified either by the branch, if it was deemed a purely local matter, or by national conference if it was deemed to have broader significance.

The formality of this structure and the strictness of the behavioural rules stood in marked contrast to the highly informal approaches to decision making that were the norm within the counter-cultural anarchist world. But it went much further than that – it surpassed anything I have ever experienced before or since. The formal procedures were adhered to even when there were only four or five members present. Parliaments, representing millions of citizens, are informal in comparison.

WSM issue of Freeman's Pamphlet image: WSM (2000)

What drove this strictness was a desire to create a level playing field within the group. In this, the WSM was strongly influenced by the ideas of the post-1960s new left which saw traditional workers’ movements as having failed to adequately address non-economic oppressions – particularly racism, sexism and homophobia - within their own ranks. Jo Freeman’s pamphlet “the tyranny of structurelessness” was particularly influential. Freeman’s pamphlet detailed how, in the absence of structure, informal, unacknowledged hierarchies emerged within the feminist movement of the 1960s which benefited the most privileged - white, heterosexual, well-educated males - the most. The WSM was determined to overcome this tendency and took great care in structuring meetings so that nobody’s voice could dominate.

The WSM’s adherence to formalism was successful in levelling the playing field, although not entirely in the manner intended. The culture of the meetings was so alien as to be extremely intimidating to people who were not used to them. The strangeness of the experience was compounded by the widespread use of the jargon of the workers movement which had long since become archaic in broader society. Speakers sometimes used formalisms such as "I would like to echo the points of the last comrade to speak" over the vernacular: "I agree with Andrew". In my first year of membership, despite carrying the full suite of white, male, heterosexual privileges, I was sufficiently intimidated that I spoke less than ten times in total and other new members were similarly reticent. The formality also created a particularly stilted and rigid dynamic in discussions – speakers felt that they had to use their alloted time to make serious, well-crafted arguments which maximised the weight of their points – leading to a preponderance of rhetoric-rich, impersonal, logical tours-de-force. Personalised put-downs and insults were successfully eliminated, but the dynamic was even more intimidating for their absence. Anybody who made a poorly thought out point could expect a sequence of speakers to meticulously and uncompromisingly deconstruct and annihilate their arguments. After each meeting, the membership would retire to the pub where conversation flowed much more naturally and it was often said that it was in the pub where real discussions happened and where you could find out what people actually thought, removed from the constraints of formality.

A culture of robust debate

The WSM prided itself on its internal culture of robust, open and free rational discussion.In theory, all subjects and opinions were welcome. In practice, however, there were boundaries as to which opinions were permissible and these boundaries were policed not by regulations but by the certainty of having one’s arguments mercilessly destroyed by more experienced members. The boundaries were defined by traditional socialist opinions which the core members had internalised. My contributions to meetings in my first year were confined to discussions about the future anarchist world that we wanted to create, because that was something I had thought about at length. I said nothing on any of the other topics of discussion simply because I had nothing to offer. I knew nothing about trade unions, organising public meetings or the tactics of day-to-day political maneuvering. However, even on this, my favourite topic, I blundered unknowingly across the boundaries of orthodoxy on several occasions.

My very first contribution to a discussion within the WSM was to argue that we might have to accept certain sacrifices as a consequence of a global revolution. I used coffee production as an example, arguing that, if the population of Central America was to become economically liberated from exploitation by the rich nations, we might find that they would be less inclined to devote their lives to slaving in fields to produce coffee for export and that we should be willing to accept minor sacrifices such as consuming less coffee in return for a free and equal world. My contribution was immediately followed by two members explaining my fundamental error – we wanted to make things better for everybody and the idea that revolution would make people’s lives worse was anti-socialist. Population growth was another issue where I unknowingly strayed outside of the consensus, through some casual comment about the problem of limiting population in a post-revolutionary society when economic constraints were removed. Once again, this was treated as a fundamental error on my part – a Malthusian heresy. The WSM consensus was that population growth was not a real problem. It was a red-herring which was only useful to those on the right who would use it as a stick with which to further oppress the masses in the third world. The correct position was that women’s liberation and social welfare – education, control over fertility and pensions - would remove such population pressures, as had been proven by the social-democratic Northern European countries where the population was generally stable or declining. On these two points, I remained and remain entirely unconvinced, but the feeling of overwhelming consensus against me was enough to persuade me to keep my mouth shut. There were many other topics where it was effectively taboo to stray outside of the consensus, including immigration, multi-culturalism, feminism and social liberalism, but on these subjects I was in fairly close agreement with the prevailing orthodoxy. Moreover, I understood that any disagreement would be treated as an error to be corrected rather than an opinion to be considered.

A learning experience

Despite the alien culture of the WSM meetings, I found them to be extremely valuable on a number of levels. For one thing, the formal structures and anti-hierarchical ethos meant that the meetings avoided the great pitfall that the vast majority of organisational meetings I have attended have fallen into – whereby the most senior person present waffles on to their heart’s content, unconstrained by an agenda or independent chair, and everybody else just suffers through. This pattern seems to be endemic across a range of different contexts. In academia meetings often seem to have no other point than to provide more senior people with a captive audience to waffle at. In industry, the only point that I can discern to the majority of meetings that I have intended is to assuage the anxieties of managers who feel themselves to be out of the loop of day-to-day activity. In politics, outside of the strange island of anti-hierarchy that is anarchism, things can really reach a nadir, with the most senior person present often both chairing the meeting and dominating the conversation, while the role of the rest of the attendees is to obediently receive their words of wisdom. Thus, weird and stilted as they may have been, the WSM’s meetings were vastly better than most meetings I have attended – a chair who focuses on process over participation and a structured agenda are features that are not to be sniffed at.

From a personal point of view, I found the WSM meetings invaluable in other important ways. Prior to becoming an anarchist, I had moved in social circles where inter-personal competition for status in the pecking order had generally dominated group dynamics. The content of discussions and debates was often irrelevant – opinions were merely a vehicle for asserting oneself. By contrast, debates within the WSM generally were largely content-based: the participants put forward positions that they genuinely held, with ego-massaging being far less important than logic and rationality. I had been educated to have a high opinion of my intellectual capabilities and was surprised to find myself in a situation where almost everybody around me was infinitely better than I was at putting together coherent and persuasive logical arguments. I repeatedly found myself agreeing with every new speaker in a debate – even where they flatly contradicted each other. The core membership had all been politically active for a decade or so and they had acquired rhetorical skills and a knowledge of persuasion and argumentation that overwhelmed me. I was mostly content to stay quiet and lap it all up as I learned the ropes.

Comments (6)


good to have you back...


Excellent read. I laughed with recognition when i read "we wanted to make things better for everybody and the idea that revolution would make people’s lives worse was anti-socialist"- that is a response I have had many times!

Dee Molloy

Happy new year chekov! The formal meeting structure you describe reminds me of a meeting structure I encountered in a group called 'change makers' but the content and purpose was very different...funny...I've had some experience of academic meetings too :)

James McBarron

Enjoyed the post quite cutting and accurate, interestingly encountered those formal meeting methods in other some branches of other organisations I've been part of which is a good thing I think as it shows the idea of leveling things our have a wider appeal. On your Malthusian heresy I would recommend this book which I found the most cogent refutation of same.
Ps I currently have no copies sorry.

chekov's picture

Hi James, sorry for the delay in responding. I'm familiar with the anti-Malthusian arguments, I just think they're wrong. If you take a very long historical view, there are multiple cases in which reproduction rates have limited themselves. The common feature is that people restrict the number of children they have if and only if more children means a step-down in relative economic position.

From this point of view, the current drop in fertility rates in the developed countries is a consequence of the entry of women into the waged labour force - having children at an early age or having more children is, for most people, a significant hindrance to career and economic position.

The evidence for this is very strong - not only is there the long-term historical trend, but the highest fertility rates are at the top of the economic pyramid* where there is no risk of loss of economic position - if women's education and autonomy was the determining factor, we would expect the opposite.

This means that in a revolutionary future where there was no economic cost to having more children, the population would expand quickly.

* note: this also happens, to a lesser extent, at the bottom where people are entirely dependent on welfare and more children has no impact on economic standing.

Shane O'Curry

plenty of food for thought. looking forward to reading more.