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FOS - Worldwide Social Struggle

New Forms of Organising

Author: Leonard Gentle


This is the third of the 3-part initial series on new forms of organizing.

In the first we tracked the various political meanings of the term “labour” and took the view that this series saw the working class as that unique force in a society which can realise the cause of social justice for all when it struggles as a collective in its own interest.

In the second we showed that that for the working class to act in this way it has always organized itself in various ways, including trade unions. But that over the last 30-odd years, globally, the working class has been so restructured – across all spheres of its life - by neo-liberalism that the methods of organising and the forms of organisation of the past are out of synch with the working class as it is constituted today.

In this third of this 3-part series we look at how the search for new forms of organising is being pursued.


Introductory notes

Firstly a number of things need to be said upfront…

This is not to be confused with two responses which are now very well known:

·         One is the idea of “social movement unionism”. This was the practice in which a traditional trade union takes on campaigns which are broader than the wage issue, or forges alliances or joint campaigns with social movements, campaigns or NGOs or political parties to win broad societal reforms.

·         Nor is this about trade unions showing the commitment to “organizing the unorganized” or inviting casual workers, or labour broker workers, immigrants or the unemployed into their ranks.

Both of these ideas have been around in the traditional labour movement for almost as long as neo-liberalism has been there, and were a notable feature of trade union responses to neo-liberalism and globalization over the last 30 years.

A third response was to seek out forms of global trade unionism and try and do collective bargaining across borders e.g. getting labour standards attached to WTO agreements, getting trade union rights agreed at negotiations with TNC head offices etc.

All of these have had some merit and all have won some gains… But it has to be said that they have not been able to address one of the major crises of our times: the growing size of the working class globally and yet the increasing weakness of the working class as a social force.        

This is not a technical exercise – of “best practice”; or taking a particular form of a shelf in which ready-made solutions are stocked. Organising and organisation are things that come from actual experience of experimentation, failures and successes.     

This is an issue to be answered by forms of self-initiated experimentation of workers collectives themselves – discovering in practice what begins to take their struggles forward and win victories. In a way this is precisely how the forms of organisation that we know today as “trade unions“, emerged over time.

So what are the deep-seated changes which raise existential questions for the New Movement?                           

Classically capitalism itself organises the working class, objectively, and in its own image.

The concentration and centralisation of capital in the 20th century found its alter ego in the concentration of the working class, in mass factories, industrial areas and residential estates and townships etc. Capital’s need for the reproduction of the working class saw mass public education and mass public housing provided grounds for the intellectual life and the material survival and development of the class. Its apogee being the Keynesian welfare model and even Apartheid South Africa was a white racial variant by the 1950s/60s.

Capital’s need for a working class provided the weapons for the organised formations which emerged amongst the working class to contest the terms of incorporation into their own exploitation – e.g. trade unions and other forms of collective bargaining.

These forms even gave rise to other forms of organisation concerned with the question of political power – e.g. mass parties of the working class – and even provide spaces for bourgeois parties to seek voters in trade-offs with working class formations.

Taylorist/Fordist/Keynesian capitalism organised the working class in its own interest and yet on this basis the working class was able to form a Movement against capitalist domination with all its regional, national and local peculiarities. 

But how does this role played by capitalism itself look in the case of neo-liberal capitalism, given the nature and extent of the restructuring of social relations that it is responsible for?      

Let us look at five key changes under neo-liberalism:

·         From the production of surplus value in the mass production of industry/manufacture to the de-industrialisation in many countries, and the contestation amongst capitals over the distribution of surplus value through financialisation.

·         From the mass factory/industrial area/mass reproduction and its role in a collective consciousness of the class to the casualization, outsourcing, homework, precariousness, unemployment and the dismemberment of the class. And not just as a temporary phenomenon. Including the sense that many strata amongst the working class do not even self-identify as “working class”.

·         From the wage relation as the source of livelihoods providing a basis for working class fighting their exploitation whilst “enjoying” these livelihoods, so that the moral and intellectual life of the class is built on this basis. To the class having to seek ‘self-initiatives” for livelihoods, including living in a state of indebtedness.

·         From the state as the collective organiser of the capitalist class ensuring the most general conditions for capital accumulation to the state particularising financial capital, devolving functions to local states and cities, outsourcing state functions, transferring functions to other networks of states – so that the unifying quality of political power becomes far more diffuse. From public services, education, health etc. being provided by the state and therefore a source of direct political contestation to the provision by private providers, NGOs and by the class itself, particularly women, in which the state does not appear to be involved. So that the question of a political focus for organising becomes abstract.

In these senses, and others, neo-liberal capitalism is organising the class, objectively, differently to that of most of 20th century capitalism. And so the forms of organising within the new Movement will also be different.

New ways of organising   

However, seeing that the victory of neo-liberalism was predicated on a profound defeat of the dominated classes since the 1970s and 1980s the existential question arises:

How does the class which is being organised differently, objectively, out of DEFEATS by this form of capitalism yet find ways to forge a Movement which is an expression not of defeat but of new capabilities able to turn the historic defeats into new victories?

To do this the class is experimenting with new ways of organising. But this is not a “pure” organising question but one of finding within these new ways how to re-assert the need for self-expression, for unity, for political power and for emancipatory practices both as a vision for movements as well as practices within movements.

To stimulate discussion, and despite our caution that we cannot merely take a few golden exemplars off a shelf, let us look at a few case studies of experimentation, successes and failures:


In Argentina in 2002 workers caught up in the financial crisis and the closure of factories of the time largely abandoned the traditional trade unions, who were politically-aligned to the Peronist party, and experimented with two initiatives. One was to use the blocking of roads and transport routes as a weapon because traditional strikes would not take struggles forward. The other was to occupy factories and attempt to run them as collective businesses.

Over the next 10 years these workers struggled to form a new trade union federation while being faced with a mixture of co-option by the centre-left party in power and internal battles over running a business in a capitalist economy.By 2015 these initiatives had collapsed.                        


In South Africa, in the Western Cape farmworkers strike in 2013 seasonal and casual farmworkers blocked roads, marching from farm to farm and focused their demand on the wage determination, which is determined by the state rather than negotiated with farmers through traditional trade unions (who had claimed for decades that farmworkers were impossible to organize).

Yet they also handed over much power to COSATU in the region to speak on their behalf. As a result their strike was usurped and, although some continued to look for ways to continue struggling, many later felt embittered.

For many years poor people from Zimbabwe and elsewhere have been forming cross-border organisations to act collectively instead of competing with one another when selling and buying goods across the Zimbabwe-South Africa borders. When the Zimbabwean state clamped down on certain cross-border goods in 2016 they were part of popular protests that forced re-opening.


The 2012 Marikana struggles in South Africa, and the aftermath of the August massacre were most emblematic of forms of experimentation. Rock drill workers revolted against their trade union and forced platinum bosses to negotiate with them, even forming strike committees to co-ordinate their struggles. The post-Marikana strike wave was notable for the range of experimentation with new forms and even the revelation that there had been forms of experimentation well before, e.g. the Bokoni Labour Forum, a forum of workers and community members fighting both against the platinum company employer, AngloPlat, as well as the traditional leaders who had stolen money meant for community development.

Yet, by 2014, the pressures to sustain struggles and livelihoods, and the inflexibility of the bosses and the legal framework encouraged many of the workers to seek out a traditional trade union, AMCU.


Today in South Africa home-based carers who preform essential care for HIV patients and others in communities as the state reneges on health care for the working class, find themselves caught between fighting with NGOs who employ them and/or Provincial Health authorities who refuse to accept them as health-workers. They have also been experimenting with forms of organizing: from acting in their own networks and forcing negotiations through struggle, to pressure to form their own union.                                                    


Today as well we have the experimentation by labour-brokers and casual workers in Gauteng to form Workers’ Councils across various industrial areas. These Councils operate across sectors, use forms of direct democracy and eschew trade union methods of organizing yet force companies to negotiate with them. They then linked up to the Simunye Workers’ Forum in the wake of a campaign by the Casual Workers Advice Office around new rights in South Africa’s Labour Relations Act in 2016.           



All of these have had their successes and failures. All of them come under enormous pressure to fit in to the legal framework of each country. All face repression and pressure to be a “proper” and “normal” trade union. In some cases the defeats have even led to demoralization and in-fighting.

Yet this is how the working class learns, how it hones its historical experience. Even here there are debates on the left; between those who argue that, in time, all of these will become new trade unions (as the current unions themselves were outcomes of past periods of experimentation); and those who argue that something much more fundamental has changed in the capitalist system and the working class itself.                  

Whilst no-one can, and should be able to, predict the future and the outcome of workers’ experimentation with new forms, I would like to look at 4 questions which activists within the working class face today:

·         How does the working class discover points of leverage to challenge financialised capital where the fight over the wage relation in production is not necessarily the focus?

·         How does a precarious working class discover forms of livelihoods which are both about survival – in the meantime - and struggle? 

·         What forms of partial victories can actually be won and ensure the survival of the class and lift its spirits for further struggles?


·         What kinds of intellectual tools can the working class forge so that it may have the moral-intellectual resources to understand and interpret this neo-liberal world and challenge it?

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