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Overcoming Capitalism: Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century: Reviewed

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, February 8, 2023

While the IWW is not an explicitely anarcho-syndicalist organization, much of its praxis fits comfortably within the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. It's not the only revolutionary organization or union that does, either, and it's evident that anarcho-syndicalism as a living, breathing revolutionary practice is alive and well in the first couple of decades of the 21st Century. It's therefore somewhat puzzling that nobody has bothered to write a book that provides an updated overview of anarcho-syndicalism for a modern audience in well over seven or eight decades.

While there have been no shortage of books that have updated the history of anarcho-syndicalism, including the much covered (but contentiously debated) Spanish Revolution of 1936, as well as numerous revolutionary union organizing efforts throughout the last century; and there have been many books detailing the history, workplace and industrial organizing campaigns, methods, and praxis of syndicalist and/or syndicalist-adjacent unions, such as (but not limited to) the IWW, the IWA-AIT, and many others, there hasn't been an English Language book laying out the basic ideas of anarcho-syndicalism since Sam Dolgoff's and Rudolph Rocker's works of the mid-20th Century.

Fortunately, Overcoming Capitalism: Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century, by Tom Wetzel, AK Press, 2022 finally attempts to fill that void.

Wetzel's accessible book expertly presents the case that capitalism is an inherently ecologically unsustainable economic order which will destroy human civilization and life as we know it on Earth, if not the Earth's biosphere entirely. Even if that weren't the case, capitalism is certainly not the guarantor of individual, collective, or economic liberty its adherents claim it is, nor is it even compatible with democracy.

While most anti-capitalists agree that some variety of socialism is an essential ingredient in any viable alternative to capitalism, there has been little consensus over which type of socialism (social democracy, democratic socialism, Leninism, or libertarian socialism) is the most effective version. Wetzel carefully lays out the case that the last option, libertarian socialism, is the best alternative, by carefully deconstructing the structural limitations of the others, devoting one or more chapters to each. In doing so, the author also makes a case that libertarian socialism can only realistically be achieved through anarcho-syndicalist (direct action based revolutionary unionism) means.

Lastly, Wetzel makes a strong case that anarcho-syndicalism cannot and is not limited strictly to workplace concerns (though the workplace is the essential lynchpin in the capitalist economy, and therefore the point at which the workers have the strongest leverage). He shows that anarcho-syndicalism (or his version of it, at least) shares many of the goals, if not the entire methodology of libertarian-communism. Finally, he argued that anarcho-syndicalism must be green-syndicalism, and that the abolition of wage slavery must also include living in harmony with the earth.

In my opinion, Wetzel successfully achieves the task he set out to accomplish, and that is providing a basic overview of anarcho-syndicalism (and why it's the best hope the working class has of overcoming Capitalism), for the current historical moment, and he does it well. That said, the book isn't entirely free of shortcomings.

In spite of the book's positives, I noted three flaws. In fairness to the author, however, I only hold him responsible for one of them, and that is minor and mostly stylistic. In numerous places, Wetzel repeats passages from elsewhere in the books, as if he either cut and paste an argument from elsewhere within the book, or he forgot he wrote the repeated words in the process of putting together the whole. This is minor, but it will no doubt provide fodder for critics with an anti-syndicalst ideological axe to grind. A small amount of editing could've fixed this. That said, this small quibble doesn't detract from the otherwise very strong and well-reasoned arguments he puts forward.

I don't hold Wetzel directly responsible for the other two limitations I noticed:

First of all, it would've been useful to spend more time defending syndicalism from the criticisms made by other libertarian-socialists whop have written syndicalism off as a failed praxis (often based on caricatures of syndicalism as a workerist, class-reductionist theory or revisionist and/or inaccurate histories of the Spanish Revolution, such as the oft quoted but deeply flawed account by Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution). Wetzel does cover this somewhat, but deeper dives into that discussion would be helpful.

Secondly, there's rich and growing ecology of campaigns, struggles, movements, and organizations that engage in anarcho-syndicalist-like and/or anarcho-syndicalist-adjacent praxis that deserve attention, even though they don't openly (or strictly) identify as anarcho-syndicalist. These include labor struggles, but also include ecological struggles, struggles against fascism, racism, and other forms of oppression that are self-organized from the ground up and are (mostly) grassroots controlled. A thorough account of how anarcho-syndicalists can build upon such activity to create a stronger movement and build working class power is sorely needed.

In fairness, such detail would lengthen the book, and writers are often under pressure from publishers, even anarchist publishers like AK Press, to keep writings concise due to the nature of the medium, which tends to place the upper limit of most books at approximately 350 pages, which this book slightly exceeds, even if not accounting for the index.

I would suggest that Tom Wetzel and/or other authors use Overcoming Capitalism as a "starter kit" and cover the other subjects as sequels (or modules?) such that the praxis can be laid out thoroughly and carefully in a series of books. Such an effort would go a long way to helping us build the movement(s) we need to finally usher capitalism into the dustbin of history, a place where it is long overdue to reside.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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