“…the word anarchy freaks people. Yet anarchy—rule by no one—has always struck me as the same as democracy carried to its logical and reasonable conclusions. Of course those who rule—bosses and politicians, capital and the state—cannot imagine that people could rule themselves, for to admit that people can live without authority and rulers pulls out the whole underpinnings of their ideology. Once you admit that people can—and do, today, in many spheres of their lives—run things easier, better and more fairly than the corporation and the government can, there’s no justification for the boss and the premier.
—Mark Leier

In my research lately, of trying to understand the nature, instincts, courage, dangers, needs, paradoxes, mistakes, aspirations and dilemmas of labour movements at the turn of the century, I’ve really enjoyed reading Mark Leier—whom I’ve quoted before—professor of history and the Director of Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (actually, Burnaby). In this case, I don’t think ‘Director’ means ‘vanguard.’ A little Marxist joke—you’ll laugh later. By the way, I am talking about Groucho Marx here, not the 1980s singer Richard Marx.

Leier has written about the famed and controversial anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (Bakunin: The Creative Passion), the I.W.W., unions and bureaucracy et cetera.

Leier writes and gives interviews with great spirit, insight, humility and humour. My kind of anarchist! Anyway, here are a few paragraphs from an interview he did relating Union movements and anarchism—and in particular the enigmatic IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies)—which he wrote about extensively in his book Where The Fraser River Flows (the IWW in British Columbia).

For the record, as to where the Fraser River flows, it flows about a ten minute drive from my house.

For those who find this labour movement/what-is-freedom? stuff interesting—I know there are at least two or three of you out there—here are a few answers from Mark in an interview he did for Black Flag (I think this is from a blog about said interview):

Q. You have also written extensively on the IWW. Do you think revolutionary unionism can grow in influence again?

If we change the question a little, to ask, will revolutionary workers’ movements grow in influence again, I think the answer is, if they do not, we are in grave danger. I doubt they will take the very same form they did in the past, but workers’ movements have always risen, declined, and risen again in new forms to meet new conditions. Clearly the world can not continue as it has; the old choice, socialism or barbarism, still faces us. Here I am using socialism in the old sense, not as state socialism, Bolshevism, and the like. And no group can build socialism—anarchism—other than the working class. Whether it will or not is the question.

Q. Many anarchists at the time pointed to the obvious links between revolutionary unionism with Bakunin’s anarchism, would you agree? Has Bakunin anything to give for today’s union activists?

Yes, Bakunin, or the ideas that he represented, were hugely influential in building revolutionary unionism. In some ways, the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World) represented that synthesis between Bakunin and Marx we talked about earlier. As for today’s union activists, that radical vision and tradition can be hugely inspiring; the attempt to grapple with big ideas is essential; the insistence on organizing from the periphery to the centre, not from the centre out, is fundamental [May those working in Aid also hear that—one needs to listen to what people on the ground, be it in Africa, Afghanistan or some labour movement, really want, and need].

Q. Your second book, “Red Flags and Red Tape: The Making of a Labour Bureaucracy”, deals with the institutionalization of a non-revolutionary labour movement. Do you think that this would affect even a revolutionary union? Can it be avoided? If so, how?

I suspect any group of two or more people starts running into problems of power and authority and decision-making! But you’re right, the question is the institutionalization of power. One of the things I argue in Red Flags and Red Tape is that people with some power—and the power of these early labour bureaucrats was limited—often make the wrong decision for the right reasons. That is, they were trying to build working class militancy, trying to move workers to resistance, trying to create a labor newspaper, trying to form new organizations—all worthy aims. But precisely because they were not immediately accountable, they made their decisions in a vacuum, without input and consensus from union members. That separated them from the members and created a bureaucracy: rule by office holders. The other thing I argue is that a union can be militant and revolutionary without being democratic; alternatively, though rare, a union could be conservative and democratic. So the dangers of bureaucracy are always there. The way to avoid them is to ensure that institutions that let officials make important decisions by themselves are not created in the first place.

Man, that would eliminate the jobs of a lot of people who really annoy a lot of us—and cost us a lot of money. But then who would tuck me in?
I’m not sure what that last line means, but it has something to do with our dependence on the state.

The conversation between big changes and practicality is endlessly interesting—and the inherent dangers in them, and non-change, are fascinating. And the conversation between Anarchy and practicality (in the so-called real world—see Quantum Physics) even jolted the unjoltable Emma Goldman.

A final few questions: So who’s running your show? Who made your pants? Who grew your food? Who picked your job? Your diet? Your thoughts? Your motivations? An easy one: Who picked your name (there was a reason Muhammad Ali changed his name)? Who fills your mind? Your heart? Your soul? Do we have a soul? Does your shoe have a sole? Am I being a heel? and so on…

Lots of love to you,




  1. Mark Leier says:

    Dear Pete,

    Many thanks for your kind words!

    best, Mark Leier

  2. […] and not enough solidarity across the countless boundaries unions reach across. SFU labour historian Mark Leier has spoken about how the labour bureaucracy as early as 1900 was already creating excessive space […]

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