Part 1: Revolutionary Syndicalism

Chapter 1: From the First International to Revolutionary Syndicalism

The prehistory of anarcho-syndicalism has its origin in the anti-authoritarian wing of the First International – the Bakuninists and federalists. The First International was created in 1864 and included adherents of various socialist tendencies. In the course of discussions in this international workers’ organization, ideas were formed about labour unions as an instrument of social liberation, about the role of the general strike, about the primacy of economic struggle, about the replacement of organs of the State by organizations of producers, about the self-management of society, and about “direct action,” i.e. the workers acting directly in their own interests and not handing over the job to political parties and leaders. After the split of the International in 1872, these views were upheld by anti-authoritarian anarchists. Their Marxist opponents set about creating social-democratic and socialist parties which engaged in the struggle for political power and the “conquest of the State.”

The rivalry between the two tendencies (anarchist and Marxist) gripped the workers’ movement. It developed unevenly and in different ways in various countries. But by the beginning of the 20th century it seemed the state socialists (social-democrats) had definitely gained the upper hand. Their opponents – the anti-authoritarian socialists (anarchists) – had been driven out of the workers’ movement in the majority of countries. On the one hand, the anarchists themselves had assisted this development at the end of the 19th century by their mistaken tactic of assuming they could bring forth revolution directly by means of symbolic acts of violence, without the necessity for solid, long-term organizing of working class forces. On the other hand, the rapid economic growth of the 1880’s strengthened illusions about the possibility of the peaceful improvement of the situation of the workers within the framework of the industrial-capitalist system.1
Social-democracy originated from the concept that the history of humanity proceeds along an ascending line of progress. Its theoreticians assumed that capitalism by its own development prepares the basis for the future socialist society, a society which in many aspects (technology, industrial and political centralization, division of labour, specialization of productive and social functions) becomes the continuation of capitalist society.2 The fundamental difference between the two social formations was located by the social-democrats in the control of political power: thus it was necessary to wrest power from the capitalists and transfer it to the workers, thereby putting the industrial machine created by capitalism at the service of everyone. In other words, the factory system of organizing production was to be extended to the whole of society. The liberation of the working classes and socialism were understood not as a break with the logic of capitalism and industrialization, but as their consequent development according to their own natural laws.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century the major labour union associations of Europe were controlled by social-democratic parties: the German and Austro-Hungarian Free Trade Unions; a number of French, Dutch, Belgian, and Portuguese workers’ associations; the General Workers’ Union (UGT) of Spain; the federations of trade unions of the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, etc. The majority of British trade unions endorsed parliamentary socialism and supported the creation of the Labour Party.

The characteristic tactic of the social-democrats in the trade union movement consisted in subjecting the mass workers’ movements to the party line, strengthening the power and influence of the union bureaucracy and its control over the disbursement of union funds, and promoting an orientation towards purely economic struggle while leaving political and social questions entirely to the competence of the party.

Anarchists and other anti-authoritarian socialists retained influence only in the workers’ movements of Spain and Latin America, and also to some extent in workers’ organizations in France, Portugal, and Italy.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century the hegemony of social-democracy was challenged. Dissatisfaction with the parliamentary strategy of the workers’ parties generated not only intra-party left oppositions, but also resistance in the labour union milieu. A new radical current arose – revolutionary syndicalism. This term began to be applied to a labour union movement “which recommended ‘revolutionary direct action’ for the transformation of economic and social conditions of the working masses… in contrast to parliamentary reformism.”3

Researchers have identified some of the causes of this radicalization of the attitudes and actions of the workers. First of all, it was connected with a change in the position of the workers themselves within the structure of industrial production. Up to the 1890’s and the first decade of the 20th century the organization of industrial production on the whole had not reached a level of specialization which would allow the division of the labour process into separate operations.

Labour in industrial enterprises was still characterized by a certain integrity not unlike the labour of craftsmen, from which factory workers inherited the psychology and ethic of autonomy and independence. They possessed complex production knowledge: in their own area of expertise, in the sphere of organizing their labour, in the distribution of labour-time, etc. All this favoured the formation of ideas among the workers about the possibility of workers’ control of the whole production process, and both production- and social-oriented self-management.4

A systematic revolution in production, beginning at the turn of the century (based on new sources of energy, and the increasing use of electricity and the internal combustion engine) led to changes in the relations of the various branches of industry and the appearance of new ones. The widespread application of technical innovations resulted in advances in production processes and changes in working and living conditions for the workers.5 The working class was more and more concentrated in cities in homogeneous neighbourhoods which strengthened class consciousness and the feeling of solidarity among wage workers. Along with the precipitous rise in the profits of enterprises, almost everywhere stagnation or even a decline in real wages was the rule. Technical and organizational changes in production undermined the professional craft skills of workers. The addition of mechanical and electrical components to machines and operations fragmented the labour process, leading to the downgrading of workers’ skills so they were less able to grasp the labour process in its entirety and correspondingly lost the possibility of controlling it.6 New methods of organizing work and management (direct hiring of all workers, piece-work, the bonus system, models of internal incentives, and the introduction of intra-factory hierarchies) allowed enterprises and administrations to control and intensify production more rigorously, increasing both the workload and the working time of the labour force. All this reinforced the dissatisfaction of the workers, first of all in such branches of industry as manufacturing, mining, and railway transport.

At the same time, there was a growing number of unskilled temporary and seasonal workers in construction, shipping, agriculture, and the oil and gas industry. Their situation was insecure and unstable but they were less dependent on specialized labour and specific employers and liable to act quickly to defend their own rights and interests.

Observers noted a rapid growth in the sense of solidarity among workers. Evidence of this can be seen in the huge strikes of transport workers in Britain, the Netherlands, and France of 1911-1912, which acquired an international character. The mutual support of sailors, stevedores, and surface transport workers brought success to the cause of wage labourers. It was characteristic that workers of different countries effectively used similar methods of mutual aid, such organizing free meals and childcare.7 The strike movement was observed to be growing almost everywhere.

In a number of countries general or “political” strikes took place. The workers were less and less satisfied with the traditional politics of social-democratic workers’ parties and trade unions. Social-democracy rejected the notion of general strikes as “total nonsense.” At a congress of the German Free Trade Unions in Cologne (1905), it was once more affirmed that “the idea of the general strike, which is upheld by the anarchists and other people lacking any experience in the field of economic struggle, is not worth discussing.”8 Even in the case of economic struggle for partial demands, trade unions under the influence of social-democracy were more and more inclined towards reformism and compromises with governments and enterprises, having recourse to strikes only in extreme circumstances. In their organizational setup the reformist unions were orientated towards a centralized operation (for example, in Germany strikes had to be sanctioned by the central industrial union association). In these labour unions a ramified and despotic bureaucracy took form. The model of a large organization with a multilevel structure for decision-making, and the assignment of projects to specially selected professionals, was based on the assumption that the rank-and-file members should have limited power and restricted access to resources. Full-time officers of labour unions were more interested in preserving and strengthening the structure of their organization than in taking part in a struggle the outcome of which was uncertain.9 Frequently union leaders preferred to avoid conducting strikes in order not to risk the money accumulated in their organization’s strike funds. In other cases the leadership of workers’ organizations compelled their members to terminate strikes, as happened, for example, in the course of the struggle of the Berlin metalworkers in December 1911. In this connection, the defeat of strike actions by German wage workers in the metallurgical, ceramic, tobacco, shoe-making, textile, and other branches of industry at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century led many activists throughout Europe to conclude that the performance of the German model of centralized trade unions had reached a dead end.10 Instead of direct strike action, reformist union leaders preferred to follow the practice of central “wage agreements” between enterprises and unions – agreements which were concluded between the unions and the business owners for specific occupations and territories and bound both sides for the duration of a mutually agreed period of time. Among the workers such actions provoked a growing indignation, since they were often saddled with unfavourable conditions and deprived of their right to have a say in decisions about labour questions which affected them in an important way. “On the whole and on all the most important questions, the central administration enjoys supreme authority…,” according to a brochure published in 1911 by the British Federation of Miners. “They, the leaders, are becoming ‘gentlemen’ and Members of Parliament and, as a result of their powerful positions, they have acquired an impressive social standing… . What really should be condemned is this politics of conciliation which finds a use for such leaders… .”11 In the words of the German trade union activist Karl Roche, “Within the workers’ movement itself, supposedly struggling to liquidate all class contradictions… two classes have formed” – the all-powerful “paid officials” and the applauding, voting “ordinary folk.”12

  • 1. See: A. Castel, De la Premiere Internationale a l’Association Internationale des Travailleurs (Marseille, 1995), pp. 13-15.
  • 2. See H.-J. Steinberg, “Zukunftsvorstellungen innerhalb der deutschen Sozialdemokratie vor dem 1. Weltkrieg,” Soziale Bewegungen. Jahrbuch 2: Auf dem Wege nach Utopia (Frankfurt a.M. / New York, 1985), pp. 48-58.
  • 3. C. Cornelissen, Uber die theoretische und wirtschaftliche Grundlagen des Syndikalismus,” in Forschungen zur Volkerpsychologie und Soziologie, Bd.2. Partei und Klasse im Lebensprozess der Gesellschaft (Leipzig, 1926), p. 63.
  • 4. See K. H. Roth (ed.), Die Wiederkehr der Proletaritat. Dokumentation der Debatte (Koln, 1994), p. 271.
  • 5. See M. Van der Linden and W. Thorpe, “Aufstieg und Niedergang des revolutionaren Syndikalismus,” in 1999. Zeitschrift fur Sozialgeschichte des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts. 1990, no. 3, p. 15.
  • 6. See W. Thorpe, ‘The Workers Themselves’, Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour, 1913-1923 (Dordrecht / Boston / London / Amsterdam, 1918), p. 24.
  • 7. C. Cornelissen, “Die neueste Entwicklung des Syndikalismus,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenchaft und Sozialpolitik, Bd.36, (Tubingen, 1913), p. 135.
  • 8. Cited by N. Luskin-Antonov, Очерки по новейшей истории Германии. 1890-1914 [Essays on the contemporary history of Germany, 1890-1914] (Moscow / Leningrad, 1925), p. 321.
  • 9. See K. Schonhoven, “Lokalismus – Berufsorientierung – Industrieverband: Zur Entwicklung der organisatgorischen Binnenstrukturen der deutschen Gewerkschaften vor 1914,” in W. J. Mommsen and H. G. Husung (eds.), Auf dem Wege zur Massengewerkschaft: die Entwicklung der Gewerkschaften in Deutschland und Grossbritannien 1880-1914 (Stuttgart, 1984), pp. 291, 295.
  • 10. C. Cornelissen, “Die neueste Entwicklung des Syndikalismus…,” p. 131. (n8)
  • 11. Cited by C. Cornelissen, “Die neueste Entwicklung…,” p. 128-129. (n8)
  • 12. K. Roche, Aus dem roten Sumpf oder: Wie es in einem nicht ganz kleinem Zentralverband hergeht (Berlin, 1909); reprint (Hamburg/Altona, 1990), p. 4.

Chapter 2: the Rise of the Revolutionary Syndicalist Movement

The challenge to social-democracy in the workers’ movement, and to everything connected with it – parliamentary orientation, reformism, and the dominance of party and union bureaucracies – first appeared in France. It was here the workers began to work out the tactic of revolutionary syndicalism from below. This line was disseminated initially in the bourses de travail. The first of them was created in 1886 in Paris. Originally these places were labour exchanges for the workforce but they soon began to function as workers’ clubs and cultural-educational centres. From a local type of inter-occupational organization, the bourses were transformed over a period of time into union centres oriented towards the class struggle. In 1892 they were united in a national federation. The bourses de travail carried on active work creating solidarity among workers at the local level, independent of political parties and individual unions which often turned out to be under party influence. The bourses became a unique kind of centre for the self-organization and mutual aid of workers: they helped the unemployed and people seeking work; they also helped the sick and victims of workplace accidents; they created libraries, social museums, and both specialist and generalist courses; and they carried on propaganda for the creation of unions, backing this up in a systematic way by organizing strikes, setting up strike funds, engaging in general agitation, etc.1 A weak point of the bourses de travail was their dependence on financing from municipal governments, which gave rise to constant conflicts between government bureaucrats and worker-activists.

The French socialists – “Guesdists” – did not wield any influence in the bourses de travail movement. The participants in the bourses were mainly rank-and-file union activists, disillusioned by the lack of social and labour legislation of the 1880’s and 1890’s; members of socialist groups (especially the “Alemanists”) opposed to the Socialist Party of Jules Guesdes; and also a certain number of anarchists who worked in the trade unions in such cities as Paris, Rouen, Toulouse, Algiers, etc. The anarchists hoped that, in the event of revolution, the local bourses and the unions would become “associations of producers” – the embryos of a self-managed, libertarian, and stateless society, a transitional stage on the road to “full” anarchism (if the revolution occurred before an anarchist consciousness had taken root among the workers) or the initial stage of libertarian (anarchist) communism – a society without either the State or money. The anarchist Fernand Pelloutier was elected secretary of the Federation of bourses de travail. He was to play an important role in the formation of revolutionary syndicalism.

Within the confines of the French bourses de travail movement a number of the most important principles of revolutionary syndicalism were formulated. Some of them were similar to those proposed by the anti-authoritarian (“Bakuninist”) wing of the First International: independence from political parties, non-participation in political struggles, “direct action” (that is, people standing up directly on behalf of their own interests2), an orientation towards economic struggle in which the workers negotiated directly with business owners for partial improvements in the working conditions of wage-workers, and the preparation of the general strike as the vehicle of social revolution. This similarity can be explained not only by the influence of the anarchists participating in the movement, but also by the practical experience of many French workers of that era.

In 1902 the Federation of bourses de travail joined with another union central – the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in a unified CGT. The new CGT became the largest workers’ organization in France: in 1912 it included 600,000 of the one million organized wage-workers of the country.3 The leadership of the confederation was in the hands of adherents of revolutionary syndicalism. This ideological stance was supported by the following labour federations: longshoremen, metalworkers, and production workers in the industries manufacturing graphite pencils, jewelry, matches, and hats; workers in the printing, construction, paper-manufacturing, and food industries; workers producing means of transportation; municipal service workers, etc.

But the CGT also included unions which were dominated by reformists: railway workers, bookbinders, textile workers, mechanics, workers in the war industry, musicians, workers in the ceramic industry, gas and electric utility workers, tobacco workers, and teamsters.4 The relation of forces was unstable and could change quickly. However, during the period of active struggle revolutionary syndicalism was also embraced by workers belonging to reformist unions.

The radicalism of the CGT found expression not only in leading strikes, but also in organizing campaigns, especially against militarism and colonialism, as well as for the eighthour day. Starting on May 1 1905, the French union central launched a massive agitation for the purpose of having the workers institute the 8-day hour day starting on May 1, 1906, without prior authorization. Throughout the whole country signs and leaflets were distributed, slogans were posted, meetings were held, and reports presented. “… within the working class an almost chiliastic mood took root which had the effect of inhibiting those trade unionists who had a grip on reality (in many factories it was possible to read signs like: ‘70 more days – and we shall be free’ or ‘67 more days – and our liberation will begin’). At the same time the bourgeoisie was seized by a collective psychosis. The Great Fear prevailed.”5 The government arrested the leaders of the CGT and brought troops into the cities. During the week before May 1 1906, strikes broke out in many sectors for the 8-hour working day, and on May 1 a general strike took place, in which up to 200,000 workers took part in Paris alone.

There were battles in the streets and at the barricades and a full cessation of economic life in many industrial centres. A multi-month wave of rear-guard strikes wrested a number of concessions from the authorities: a reduction in work time and increase in pay in individual enterprises; the legislated introduction of a day off every week and an abbreviated work day on Saturdays; and a reduction in the intensity of work in construction.

In the following years repression against the CGT increased.

The government frequently used troops against strikers and the soldiers opened fire on workers; street battles erupted. The organization could not endure the excessive strain on its resources. By the end of 1908 the leadership of the CGT had passed into the hands of reformers. Nevertheless, right up to 1914 strong revolutionary moments could be observed in the activities of the confederation: the organization continued its active anti-militarist and anti-war campaigns, its struggle against pension legislation which did not meet the workers’ needs, and against inflation. [19]

From France revolutionary syndicalism spread to other European countries. After the general strike of 1903 the National Secretariat of Labour of the Netherlands, created in 1893, broke with reformist social-democracy and adopted a position of revolutionary syndicalism.

In Italy, starting in 1891, there arose local “houses of labour” similar to the French bourses de travail. The general strike of 1904, general strikes and clashes in the South in 1905, and the general strike of May 1906, in Turin, increased the tendency towards the unification of workers. In 1906 the General Confederation of Labour (CGL) was created; its leadership was captured by socialists and the revolutionary syndicalists headed the opposition. Dissatisfaction of the workers with the reformist politics of the socialist leadership of the CGL grew after it refused to support a strike of railway workers in Milan in 1907 and a regional strike in Parma in 1908. The revolutionary syndicalists, on the other hand, during the period 1908-1911 led large-scale actions of agricultural labourers in Apulia, and metalworkers in Turin and Genoa; strikes against Italian intervention in Africa; strikes of foundry workers in Piombino and on the island of Elba; a strike of bricklayers in Carrara, etc. Gradually the synchronized structures of a revolutionary syndicalist movement were formed. Finally, in 1912, the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) was created, having a federalist and self-governing internal structure. In 1914 it already counted 124,000 members.6 The revolutionary syndicalists organized the largest actions of the Italian workers, such as the general strike of workers of the marble industry; the general strike of the Milan metalworkers; actions of construction workers, sailors, agricultural labourers, and railway workers; the general strike in solidarity with workers in the furniture manufacturing industry in 1913; and the strikes of bricklayers in Carrara in 1914. In June 1914 anti-militarism protests grew into an insurrection (“Red Week”) above all in the Marche (Ancona) and Emilia Romagna. The USI actively participated in these actions, while the leaders of the CGL sabotaged them in whatever way they could.

In Portugal, where the anarchists had taken an active part in workers’ association from the beginning of the 1890’s, the example of French revolutionary syndicalism aided the majority of organized workers to free themselves from the influence of the socialists. An active strike movement grew, which put the methods of direct action into practice. Already in 1907 several unions, emerging from under the control of reformists, had joined together in the General Federation of Labour. In 1909 the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists, brushing aside the socialists, convened a congress of trade union and co-operative associations in Lisbon. The participants put forward the demand for the 8-hour work day and agreed on the creation of a confederation of all workers with the goal of “obtaining an increasing influence over the production of essential goods.” In the north of the country in Porto an autonomous General Union of Labour started up in 1911, independent of the Socialist Party. The second syndicalist congress in the same year consolidated its revolutionary syndicalist orientation. In 1910-1912 the country was rocked by a wave of strikes of a radical, insurrectionary character, accompanied by clashes with troops and police and acts of sabotage. In 1912 as a sign of solidarity with the strike of 20,000 agricultural workers of the Evora region, syndicalists declared a general strike. Workers armed themselves and Lisbon literally found itself in the hands of the toilers. The politics of the reformist trade unions helped to supress the revolt to a significant degree. The subsequent repression forced the syndicalists and socialists to seek common ground. At the 1st all-national workers’ congress in Tomar in 1914 representatives of both tendencies were present.

The result was the creation of a single National Workers’ Union (UON) in which each ideological tendency received full independence. However the ideas and practice of revolutionary syndicalism enjoyed increasing influence and at the national convention in 1917 revolutionary syndicalism was officially recognized.7 In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, the sources of both the anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist movements were found among the left activists and trade union opposition within social-democracy itself. The Free Association of German Trade Unions (FVdG), created in 1897 by “localists” (opponents of the formation of bureaucratic, centralized trade union associations), at the beginning of the 1900’s adopted the concept of the general strike and methods of direct action. In 1912 it approved a program put together under the influence of the French CGT. In response the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1908 prohibited its members from joining the FVdG. In Sweden the “young socialists,” in the course of trade union debates in 1908, spoke out in support of methods of struggle and tactics close to the CGT.8 The defeat of a general strike in the following year strengthened the disenchantment with the line of the social-democratic trade union leadership, and in 1910 delegates from a number of unions announced the creation of a “Central Organization of Swedish Workers” (SAC).9 The organization of syndicalist oppositions also took place in Norway (the Norwegian Syndicalist Union) and in Denmark.

The wave of lockouts in the Scandinavian countries in the summer of 1911 and the compromises agreed to under such conditions by the trade union leadership with business owners, served to promote the spreading of the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Scandinavia.

In the Anglo-Saxon countries revolutionary syndicalism arose in the practice of “industrial unionism,” i.e. organizing workers not on an occupational, but rather on a sectoral or industrial, basis. In contrast to the French and Italian syndicalist unions, “industrial unionism” regarded as its organizational basis the lowest production unit; and at a higher level – the industry association; and finally – “the one big union” of all the workers, regardless of their occupation.

In the U.S.A. in 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was created through the initiative of radical unions. The IWW also became more and more revolutionary syndicalist in character. It was oriented towards direct action, striving to combine actions aimed at improving the situation of workers with the struggle for social revolution and a new society, organized on the basis of unions managing production. In contrast to the official trade unions, the IWW included in its membership unskilled workers, immigrants, and women. In 1906-1916 the IWW participated in a number of the bitterest and most radical strikes in the history of the U.S.A.: a general insurgence by workers of various occupations in Goldfield, Nevada and a strike by sawmill workers in Portland, Oregon (1906-1907); strikes of multi-thousands of textile workers in Skowhegan, Maine (1907) and Lawrence, Massachusetts (1909); a steelworkers’ strike in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania (1909); and so on. The response to this was repression against the activists of the IWW10

In Australia the organization of the IWW took place as a reaction to the introduction of compulsory state arbitration in labour disputes and the suppression of strikes. Workers’ organizations based on the IWW platform were also created in Great Britain, South Africa, in Russia in 1917, and in Germany after the First World War.

The revolutionary syndicalist movement in Britain arose also under the influence of agitation by the IWW and the newspaper The Syndicalist, published by the worker-activists Tom Mann and Guy Bowman. In 1910 the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) was formed. The British syndicalists set out not to create their own separate organizations, but to win over the craft unions. They succeeded in taking control over the key unions of miners and railway workers. In the pre-war years a rapid growth of syndicalism took place in Great Britain. The mass actions organized by syndicalists (the 1911 general strike of seamen which gave rise to the first international movement of solidarity, and the strike of one million coal miners in the spring of 1912) were on a scale which exceeded anything previously known to the world in the way of class conflicts.11 The action by British seamen was supported by their colleagues in Belgium, Holland, and the U.S.A.; by longshoremen; and also by other categories of British transport workers. Significantly, during the miners’ strike decisions were arrived at by a referendum of the workers, and in the course of negotiations with the owners the workers tried to impose clear-cut and binding instructions on their own representatives and, in the spirit of federalism, to observe the autonomy of individual mines and regions. The South Wales Miners’ Federation developed a plan of re-organization in which envisaged the introduction of revolutionary syndicalist principles: the autonomy of lodges as the highest instance of decision-making, the rejection of full-time paid union leaders, the taking control of industry by the workers as a goal, etc.12

At the beginning of the 20th century revolutionary syndicalist tendencies spread to a number of other countries: Belgium (the Union of Syndicates of the Province of Liège from 1910, the Belgium Syndical Confederation from 1913), Switzerland, Russia (it was here, according to some sources, that the term “anarcho-syndicalism” was coined13), Austro- Hungary, the Balkans, Canada (the “One Big Union” which arose in 1919), etc.

  • 1. For details, see: F. Pelloutier, Histoire des bourses du travail: origin – institutions – avenir (Paris, 1978).
  • 2. “Direct action,” explained Victor Griffuelhes, one of the leading activists of French revolutionary syndicalism, “denotes the actions of the workers themselves, i.e. actions directly carried out by people in their own interests. The worker himself applies his efforts: he personally exerts his influence on the forces which rule over him in order to obtain from them the desired benefit. With the help of direct action the worker himself creates his own struggle; he takes full responsibility for it and does not hand off the matter of his personal liberation to anyone else.” (Cited by: G. Aigte, “Uber die Entwicklung der revolutionaren syndikalistischen Arbeiterbewegung Frankreichs und Deutschlands in der Kriegs- und Nachkriegszeit,” Die Internationale, 1931, no. 4 (Februar), p. 88.
  • 3. W. Thorpe, “The Workers Themselves...,” p. 26. (n7)
  • 4. L. Mercier-Vega and V. Griffuelhes, L’Anarcho-syndicalisme et le syndicalisme revolutionnaire (Paris, 1978), p. 14.
  • 5. direkte aktion, 1993, no. 98 (Mai-Juni), p. 7.
  • 6. G. Careri, L’Unione Sindacale Italiana tra sindacalismo di base e trasformazione sociale (n. p., 1997), p. 9.
  • 7. See: Die Internationale,no.5 (Juni 1925), p. 148ff.; C. Da Fonseca, Introduction a l’histoire du mouvement libertaire au Portugal (Lausanne, 1973).
  • 8. H. Rubner, Freiheit und Brot (Berlin / Koln, 994), pp. 23-32.
  • 9. For details, see: L. K. Persson, Syndikalismen I Sverige 1903-1922 (Stockholm, 1975).
  • 10. See: L. Adamic, Dynamit: Geschichte des Klassenkampfs in den U.S.A. (1880-1930), 3. Aufl. (Stuttgart, 1985). About the IWW see also: V. Trautman, D. Ettor, et al., Производственный синдикализм (индустриализм) [Industrial Unionism], coll. of articles (Petersburg-Moscow, 1919).
  • 11. C. Cornelissen, “Die neueste Entwicklung…,” p. 138. (n8)
  • 12. Ibid., pp. 144-147.
  • 13. A. Schapiro, preface to P. Besnard, L’Anarcho-syndicalisme et l’anarchisme (Marseille, 1997).

Chapter 3: Revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarchism

The revolutionary syndicalism of the early 20th century was not born in the heads of theoreticians. It was the practice of the workers’ movement which sought its own doctrine1 – above all, the practice of direct action. What this meant, according to the words of Émile Pouget, one of the leading activists of the French CGT, was that the working class, finding itself in constant conflict with contemporary society, “expects nothing from anyone, any government, or any powers external to themselves, but creates the conditions for its own struggle and draws on its own resources for the means of action.”2 “Direct action varies according to the circumstances,” pointed out Georges Yvetot, one of the leaders of the CGT, “the workers find new methods depending on their occupations, their imaginations, or their initiatives. In principle direct action excludes any concern about legality…

Direct action consists in forcing the owner to make concessions from considerations of fear or self-interest.”3

Such methods include, in the first place, means of economic struggle which are pointed directly at the counter-agent of the workers in production – the entrepreneur or capitalist (the boycott, individual or group sabotage of production, partial or general strike), and also revolutionary syndicalist propaganda and anti-militarist activity. Political struggle as a task of the organized workers’ movement was rejected. It was assumed that from the economic struggle of workers for their rights and the improvement of their situation within the framework of the existing system would develop a frontal assault on Capital and its State. As a result, capitalism would be overthrown, the system of wage labour eliminated, and the workers, organized in labour unions, would take over control of production. In this sense strikes played a very special role for revolutionary syndicalists: they were viewed not as an end in themselves but as a “revolutionary drill,” as preparation of the workers for the imminent revolution.

The revolutionary syndicalist movement was not able to formulate a coherent ideological doctrine. At the level of theory revolutionary syndicalism remained a complex of ideas from various sources. Very different tendencies contributed to this complex. The Dutch syndicalist Christiaan Cornelissen, one of the first to study the movement, distinguished three groups among the activists of revolutionary syndicalism: the trade unionists, who considered syndicalism “self-sufficient” and distinct from any ideology and occupied radical positions based on their practice of class struggle; the anarchists, who saw in the trade union movement the possibility of moving from agitation to action; and finally, people from the socialist parties and groups who hoped to extricate socialism from the impasse of parliamentarism.4

The anarchists who were working in the trade unions and trying to draw them closer to libertarian positions considered the unions not just as an organ of the struggle of workers for the direct improvement of their situation, but also as the instrument which by way of the General Strike would carry out the social revolution, seize control of the economy, and plan both production and consumption in the interests of the whole of society. In 1909 two prominent French revolutionary syndicalists, Émile Pataud and Émile Pouget, published the programmatic book “How We Shall Make the Revolution.”5 They proceeded from the assumption that the unions in the course of a revolutionary strike would expropriate capitalist property and transform themselves into an association of producers. Each union would occupy itself with carrying out the re-organization of production and disribution in its own area of expertise. The trade unions, with their territorial and industrial federations at all levels (up to and including the national congress and its executive) would become the organs of a new society, making decisions and carrying them out in the sphere of economic and social life: gathering statistics and sharing them, coordinating production and distribution on the basis of these statistics, and ensuring the social processes by which administration takes place from bottom to top. In this scheme groups and associations which are engaged in governing inhabitants on a territorial basis are assigned only a subsidiary role in the organization of life at the local level.

In the designs and elaborations of the revolutionary syndicalists one can discover many basic features of anarchist (libertarian) self-managed alternatives to industrial-capitalist society. However, there are differences on some points of principle. First of all, revolutionary syndicalism is much more favourably disposed towards industrial progress and industrial forms of organization than anarcho-communist doctrine. Anarchism rejected not only capitalism, private property, and the State; but also the centralization of social life and the division and specialization of labour. Anarchist theoreticians did not object to professional associations and other groups based on common interests, but they considered that the free society of the future would be based on self-managed, autonomous, territorial communes, joined together by federations. To industrial centralization with its occupational hierarchy and specialization, and to factory tyranny with its strict division of labour and its cult of production and productivity, the anarchists counterpoised a break with the logic of industrialism: the decentralization and breaking up into smaller units of industry; its re-orientation towards local needs; the integration of industrial and agricultural, intellectual, and physical labour; and the maximum possible self-sufficiency of communes and regions.6 On the contrary, many syndicalists aspired to have an influence on the labour process in existing enterprises, rather than liquidating the system of large-scale centralized industry.

Thus, Cornelissen affirmed that the division of labour has “great advantages” for the wage worker and will contribute to his liberation. In the spirit of the industrial Marxism of the Second International, he declared that the liquidation of capitalist ownership in the means of production by no means implies that all the workers in an enterprise must participate in management. Cornelissen also defended the institution of full-time functionaries – the trade union bureaucracy.7

In other words, a section of the anarchists, those working in the trade unions, tended to consider syndicalism as the anarchism appropriate to the new, industrial century. “I am an anarchist, but anarchy does not interest me,” declared E. Pouget.8

Some of the anarchists in the revolutionary syndicalist movement recognized the divergence between anarchist social doctrine and the model of a hierarchical, centralized production system, administered by the trade unions. However they stressed that such a “syndicalist system,” although not yet dispensing with the State, nevertheless in its subsequent evolution would lead to the “total implementation of communist principles in economic relations” and “to the total disappearance” of the State “as a consequence… of its superfluousness,” i.e. it would lead to anarchy.9

The theory of anarcho-communism proceeded from the assumption that immediately after the social revolution, which would eliminate private property and the State, society would switch to a communist system of production and distribution according to the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

The book by Pataud and Pouget proposed an intermediate, “collectivist” variant, similar to that espoused in those days by the Marxists: communist distribution of goods of prime necessity and distribution “according to labour” (by means of worker’s time sheets) for all remaining goods. And Cornelissen, like the social-democrats, asserted that in the contemporary industrial era with the growth of interdependency in the world economy, self-sufficiency was impossible because both prices as well as the compensation of labour were in the form of money and would remain so in a socialist society, at least until a state of affluence prevailed. [37]

A significant number of Marxists at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th centuries, disenchanted with the “senility” of parliamentary socialism and reformism, saw in revolutionary syndicalism the means to envigorate and save socialism. The syndicalist “neo-Marxist” theoreticians (Georges Sorel, Edouard Berth, and Hubert Lagardelle in France; Arturo Labriola and Enrico Leone in Italy; etc.) tried to return to that aspect of Marxist doctrine which critiqued the State and factory discipline and was oriented towards their liquidation. However their ideas about the mobilizing role of violence, about the vanguardist-elitist function of the “revolutionary minority” in contrast to the “democracy of numbers” and, finally, about the myths in which each participant of the movement must believe even if they were not destined to realize them in full measure (such myths were ascribed by Sorel, for example, to the syndicalist concept of the general strike and the Marxist doctrine about “catastrophic revolution”10) – these ideas were antithetical to libertarian views. Nevertheless, the works of these authors received very wide distribution and in many countries became associated with the revolutionary syndicalist movement, exerting a significant influence on its development.

The theoreticians of anarcho-communism ( Petr Kropotkin, Ericco Malatesta, and others) maintained that the roots of social development lie in progress of the ethical concepts of humanity; that capitalism is a regressive system since it undermines the intrinsic social nature of humanity based on mutual aid; and that the division of humanity into warring classes plays a reactionary role, retarding the set11 self-realization of the human personality. From this the anarcho-communists drew their demand for the liquidation of the division of society into classes. The path to this result they saw in the resistance of oppressed social layers, but they emphasized: “The anarchist revolution which we seek is far from being restricted to the interests of one distinct class. Its goal is the complete liberation of the whole of humanity oppressed at the present time in three senses of the word – economic, political, and ethical.”12 On the other hand, revolutionary syndicalism adopted the Marxist concept of the primacy of the economy and the progressive nature of class struggle in social development. It proceeded from the assumptions that the development of industrial capitalism creates the economic and social basis for a free society, and that the struggle of the proletariat for its own class interests necessarily leads to its overthrow of capitalism. These assumptions resulted in the organizational and programmatic views of the revolutionary syndicalists, embodied above all in the “Charter of Amiens” – a document adopted by a congress of the French CGT in Amiens in 1906. Although the Charter represented a compromise between different tendencies present in the French trade union confederation, it exerted a decisive influence on the workers’ movement of many countries, namely as a declaration of the principles of revolutionary syndicalism.

According to this document, the CGT was not based on ideology but on class, embracing all workers, “regardless of any political tendencies,” who acknowledged the necessity of “struggle for the riddance of wage labour and entrepreneurial activity.” The Charter agreed in principle with the class struggle in the economic arena “against any form of exploitation and oppression.” It stated that syndicalism has a dual purpose: to lead the struggle for the immediate improvement of the situation of the working class, and simultaneously to prepare for “complete liberation” by means of “expropriation of the capitalists” in the course of a general strike, so that the trade union (syndicate) would in the future be transformed into a “group for production and redistribution, the basis of social reorganization.” Concerning political parties, ideological tendencies, religious beliefs, etc., it was proposed that workers belonging to a trade union keep their own individual convictions outside of the union in the name of class unity. However, the right of workers to struggle for their own ideas outside the union was recognized.13

Thus, in comparison with anarcho-communism, revolutionary syndicalism represented only a partial, inconsistent, and contradictory rupture with the industrial-capitalist system. Therefore it was not surprising that in anarchist circles the new movement was often regarded critically. It’s true Kropotkin was one of the first to encourage anarchists to work in the trade unions14 and even wrote an introduction to the book by Pataud and Pouget, emphasizing the closeness of the revolutionary syndicalist program to anarchism in the matter of workers’ self-organization and self-management.15

But by no means did all the anarchists perceive revolutionary syndicalism in a sympathetic way. Sharp disputes about the relationship between anarchism and syndicalism flared up at the congress of anarchists in Amsterdam in August 1907, which was convened, not surprisingly, through the efforts of the Dutch syndicalist Cornelissen. The French delegate Pierre Monatte, active in the CGT, stressed the shared positions and reciprocal influences of anarchism and syndicalism, insisting that syndicalism, “as defined by the Amiens congress of 1906,” was self-sufficient. He presented it as a sort of renewal of anarchist goals and “the way the movement and revolution are conceived.” A number of other participants at the congress critiqued the notion of the “self-sufficiency” of syndicalism. Thus, the Czech anarchist K. Vokryzek declared that syndicalism must be only a means, an instrument of anarchist propaganda, but not the goal. Cornelissen argued that anarchists should not support just any kind of syndicalism or any kind of direct action, but only those “which are revolutionary in their aims.” But the most outspoken criticism of Monatte’s position came from the Italian anarchist E. Malatesta. He also spoke in favour of anarchists working in the trade unions, but assigned to the unions, and indeed the workers’ movement as such, the role of one of the means of revolutionary struggle. Malatesta did not deny trade unions could in the future provide “groups which are capable of taking the management of production in their own hands,” however, he considered the main point about unions was that they were created and exist as instruments to defend collective material interests within the framework of existing society. He disputed the idea that solidarity between workers can develop out of common economic class interests, since it was completely possible to satisfy the aspirations of some groups at the expense of others.

But on the other hand, he supposed there was a possibility of “ethical solidarity” of proletarians – based on a common ideal. Malatesta also denied the possibility that the general strike by itself could replace social revolution: a stoppage of work could serve to start a revolution, but could not replace insurrection and expropriation. Finally, he appealed to anarchists to “awaken” the trade unions to the anarchist ideal.

But at the same time he rejected the idea of special, purely revolutionary, trade unions and spoke in favour of single, “absolutely neutral,” workers’ unions.16 However, already at the Amsterdam congress A. Dunois articulated the concept, closely related to future anarcho-syndicalism, of “workers’ anarchism,” which would replace the abstract and purely literary “pure anarchism.”17 The congress created a bureau of the anarchist International which included syndicalists (the Russian Aleksandr Shapiro and the Englishman John Turner), and also the German anarchist Rudolph Rocker, who was sympathetic to syndicalism. However the bureau had ceased its work already by the end of 1911.18

In spite of the criticism of revolutionary syndicalism in anarchist circles, the new current exerted a significant influence on the anarchist workers’ movement in those countries where it had existed since the time of the First International (in Spain), or where it had arisen later (for example, in Latin America).

In Spain the tradition of mass anarchist labour unions could be traced to the Spanish Regional Federation of the First International (1870) and the Federation of the Workers of the Spanish Region (1880’s). In spite of the attempt to recreate the latter organization in 1900, the majority of worker’s organizations essentially acted independently, under conditions of severe state repression. In 1907 the autonomous workers’ societies of Barcelona, which were under the influence of anarchists, created a federation of “Worker’s Solidarity” with the stated goal of replacing the capitalist system with a “workers’ organization, transformed into a social system of labour.” The activity of the federation soon spread to the whole of Catalonia – the most developed industrial region of the country. In 1909 the federation was able to conduct a general strike in Barcelona in protest against the colonial war in Morocco, a strike which was cruelly suppressed by troops (the “Tragic Week”). Analogous organizations began to spring up in other regions. The impetus for the growth of the movement was the example of the French CGT. In October-November 1910 at a congress in Barcelona, a national association of Spanish workers was created – the National Confederation of Labour (CNT). The organizational structure of the CNT was based on the model of the CGT, and the workers’ societies were converted into trade unions (“syndicates”). The resolutions and decisions adopted reflected an attempt at an original synthesis of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism. Along with points which were close to syndicalist positions (such as the necessity of struggle for partial improvements, the 8-hour day, a fixed minimum wage, the application of methods of direct action, and the general revolutionary strike), the resolutions of the CNT congress contained formulas decisively rejecting politics and parties and which continued the traditions of the anarchist movement. The Spanish anarcho-syndicalists again adopted the slogan of the First International (“The liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves”).

They stated that syndicalism is not an end in itself but a means of organizing the revolutionary general strike and attaining “the total liberation of the workers by way of the revolutionary expropriation of the bourgeoisie.” They also announced it was necesssary to propagandize the new “powerful ideas” among the people – the new formulas of radical social renewal, i.e. anarchism. In 1911 the CNT already had 30,000 members. It was able to organize big strikes in Madrid, Bilbao, Seville, Jerez-de-la-Frontera, Málaga, and Tarrasa; a general strike in Zaragoza; a general revolutionary strike against the war in Morocco (autumn 1911); a strike of 100,000 textile workers; a general strike in Valencia (March 1914), etc. In 1911 the CNT was banned and had to go underground until 1914.19

Anarchists in Latin American countries such as Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil worked in the trade union movement. Anarchism reached its highest development in the workers’ movement in Argentina and Uruguay, where groups of adherents of the First International were active already in the 1870’s. Ettore Matei, Errico Malatesta and other well known anarchists took part in the creation of the first workers’ organizations in Argentina. In 1901 a national workers’ federation sprang up (from 1904 it was known as the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation – FORA). A year after its creation the social-democrats withdrew and, at its 1905 congress, the FORA recommended to its members to propagandize “the economic and philosophical principles of anarcho-communism” among the workers. At the same time the Argentine workers’ organization rejected not only the concept of the “self-sufficiency” of syndicalism, but also the idea of “neutral” trade unions (which was held by the French revolutionary syndicalists, as well as by Malatesta).

The FORA organized many local and general strikes, achieving a reduction in the work day and the improvement of working conditions. For example, general strikes were conducted in solidarity with workers in the sugar industry (Rosario, 1901), and with sales clerks (Buenos Aires, 1902; on a national scale, 1904). There were large strikes of bakery workers in Buenos Aires (1902), and longshoremen (1902 and 1903-1904). Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in national general strikes of solidarity and protest against repressions in 1907, 1909, and 1910. In 1907, on the initiative of the anarchists, a general strike of tenants was organized.

These actions and demonstrations often resulted in violent clashes and street battles with police, and harsh repressions which were answered in turn by protest strikes.20 “One must say that the anarchist movement here – is unlike any other in the world,” wrote the correspondent of a European anarchist newspaper in 1907, “since here almost all the workers are anarchists.”21 In 1916 supporters of “neutral” syndicalism succeeded in splitting the FORA – the more moderate breakaway organization was known as the “FORA of the 9th Congress.”

Under the influence of the FORA the Uruguayan Regional Workers’ Federation (FORU) was formed in 1905. It developed more quietly, experiencing a number of ups and downs. Nevertheless, the Uruguayan worker anarchists were able to lead important strikes of street car conductors, bakers, leather workers, construction workers, transport workers, printers, metalworkers, packing plant workers, etc. as well as several general strikes. It was able to compel the government to introduce the 8-hour working day.22 The Argentine FORA also served as a model for the Regional Workers’ Central of Paraguay, founded in 1916.

Anarchists from the very beginning exerted a fundamental influence on the workers’ movements of such countries as Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil.23 Mexican anarchists were involved in founding the first association of the country’s labour unions – the Great Circle of Mexican Workers (GCOM) in 1870. At the beginning of the 20th century, they carried on a tenacious struggle against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz; however, during the revolutionary period 1910-1917 their forces split. A section of the activists led by Ricardo Flores Magón organized an insurgent movement which eventually resulted in the overthrow of the dictatorship.

But this section continued to act against the new regime to obtain the goals of social revolution, “land and freedom.”

The other section took part in creating a syndicalist labour union central – the House of the World Worker (COM) in 1912. Mexican syndicalists formed an alliance with the leaders of the liberal-constitutional wing of the Revolution, counting on receiving from them the possibility of freedom in the workplace, and helped them defeat the revolutionaries of the North led by F. Villa and the insurgent peasants of the South under E. Zapata. But already in 1916 the syndicalists were smashed by the government.

In Cuba, a colony of Spain up until 1898, the anarchist movement developed originally under the influence of the anarchists of the metropolis. Many trade unionists in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century were under the influence of the anarchists.

In Brazil the anarchists, overshadowing the socialists, achieved predominance in the labour federations of a number of states, and in 1906 by their initiative a national labour union central was formed – the Brazilian Workers’ Confederation (COB). Active strike warfare was carried on in the country.

The anarchist workers’ movement also spread to other countries of Latin America. In Chile the anarchists worked in numerous Resistance Societies of skilled workers and in “Mancomunales” (which were simultaneously trade unions, mutual aid societies, and regional workers’ associations), and organized a number of powerful strikes. However in 1907 the movement received a heavy blow: the government suppressed a strike of 30,000 nitrate workers organized by the anarchists in which as many as 4,000 people were killed.24

In Peru worker-anarchists headed labour unions of bakers, textile workers, dockers, seafarers, casual labourers, etc.

They acted as the initiators of powerful strikes (including a general strike in Callao in 1913, after which the 8-hour day was introduced for a number of occupations), and developed work among indigenous communalists.25 A number of active trade unions were under anarchist influence as well in Boliva, Ecuador, Panama...

The rapid spread of the revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist workers’ movement throughout the whole world soon led to the first contacts between organizations and attempts to create an international association of radical trade unions. In August 1907, during the anarchist congress in Amsterdam, a meeting of syndicalists was held. In accor- dance with a proposal by the Free Association of German Trade Unions (FVdG), it was decided to start publishing an “International bulletin of the syndicalist movement” in four languages, which would further the development of the contacts between the syndicalist organizations of different countries. The bulletin was published in Paris and its editor was C. Cornelissen. The publication was financed by the syndicalists of the Netherland, Germany, Bohemia, Sweden, and France, and also received support periodically from the American IWW26

Rank-and-file activists in the revolutionary syndicalist organizations of the Netherlands, Germany, and France frequently urged the French CGT to convene an international trade union congress with the participation not only of reformists, but also revolutionary unions. Some of the French revolutionary syndicalists spoke out in favour of giving a higher priority to developing connections with other revolutionary trade union and initiatives; however, the leadership of the CGT declined to do so for the sake of preserving unity in the workers’ movement. The CGT joined a global association of trade unions under the aegis of social-democrats and reformists – the International Secretariat of the National Centers of Trade Unions (ISNTUC). It boycotted the conferences organized by this secretariat in 1905 and 1907 because the German trade unions would not allow the inclusion on the agenda of resolutions about the general strike and antimilitarism, but from 1909 on the CGT participated in the conferences but was unsuccessful in obtaining their transformation into plenipotentiary congresses of delegates. The banding together of the revolutionary syndicalist forces now continued without the participation of the CGT.27

New proposals about international connections were raised at the 6th convention of the IWW (1911) and by the syndicalist trade union associations of Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. Finally, the responsibility for holding an international meeting was taken upon itself by the British Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL). Participants at the conference were supposed to be “revolutionary workers, organized in independent trade unions” and rejecting political parties: “activists,” not “functionaries.” The preparatory committee called the international syndicalist congress for London in September-October 1913.

Sessions of the congress took place at Holborn Town Hall, London. There were delegates representing the Free Association of German Trade Unions; the Argentine FORA and the syndicalist “Regional Workers’ Confederation of Argentina” (CORA); the Brazilian workers’ confederation; the trade union organizations of Belgium, Cuba, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain; the Italian syndicalist union and a number of local trade union organizations of Italy; and the Swedish trade union association SAC which also represented the syndicalists of Norway and Denmark. A representative of the IWW was present as an observer. C. Cornelissen was elected secretary of the congress, and its translator was the Russian anarcho-syndicalist A. Shapiro. Discussed were questions of international collaboration; theory and tactics; anti-militarism and anti-war work; migrant workers, etc.

In the course of the sessions serious differences surfaced between those who, like the Italian delegate Alceste De Ambris, tried to soften the anti-statist and anti-capitalist slant of the proposed resolutions and avoid “splitting the working class” by creating a new trade union International; and adherents of a more consistently revolutionary line. In the end the congress adopted a declaration of principles which included the basic positions of revolutionary syndicalism: “Capitalist slavery and State oppression” were rejected, and the “class struggle” was proclaimed as the inevitable consequence of private property and workers’ solidarity. This document contained appeals for the creation of independent industrial unions on the basis of free association, both for the fight for everyday necessities for the workers, as well as for the overthrow of the capitalist system and the State. It was maintained that workers’ organizations must overcome the divisions brought about by “political and religious differences.”

The declaration expressed the view that trade unions will become organs of the socialization of property and the management of production in the interests of the whole of society. Direct action was recognized the means of struggle. Finally, the congress took a decisive step towards the creating of a new syndicalist International: it called for international solidarity and established an International Syndicalist Information Bureau to coordinate communications and cooperation, make preparations for new congresses, etc. The functions of the Bureau were entrusted to the Netherlands NAS, although De Ambris expressed dissatisfaction with this circumstance and proposed to place it in Paris (effectively under the control of the CGT). The Bureau, composed of Gerrit van Erkel (chair), Thomas Markmann (secretary), A. J. Hooze (treasurer), M. A. van der Hage, and F. Drewes, set to work officially on January 1 1914.

The further unification of worker anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists was prevented by the outbreak several months later of the First World War. The war demonstrated all the contradictions and inconsistencies of the revolutionary

  • 1. “In the revolutionary syndicalist workers’ movement, more than in other movements, one sees the lively instincts of the [working – V. D.] class, searching about and finding its own way...,” noted in this connection the German researcher of the 1930’s Gerhard Aigte. “That is why this movement did not spring up as a result of some well-defined, polished theory, but arose from the requirements of practical life. The revolutionary syndicalists... always emphasized that syndicalism – is the workers going about their own business, and not the speculative creation of isolated intellectuals.” (G. Aigte, Die Internationale, 1930, no. 2 (Dezember), p. 45).
  • 2. E. Pouget, L’Action directe (Marseille, 1997), p. 1.
  • 3. G. Yvetot, A.B.C. syndicaliste + F. Pelloutier, L’Organisation corporative et l’anarchie (Toulouse, n.d.), p. 33.
  • 4. C. Cornelissen, “Uber den internationalen Syndikalismus,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, Bd. XXX (Tubingen, 1910), pp. 153-154.
  • 5. E. Pataud and E. Pouget, Comment nous ferons revolution (Paris, 1909).
  • 6. See, for example: P. A. Kropotkin, Fields, factories, and workshops (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996).
  • 7. C. Cornelissen, “Uber den internationalen Syndikalismus...,” pp. 158, 161, 165; C. Cornelissen, “Zur internationalen syndikalistischen Bewegung,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, Bd. XXXII (Tubingen, 1911), p. 842.
  • 8. Cited by V. Garcia, Antologia del anarcosindicalismo (Caracas / Montady, 1988), p. 17.
  • 9. M. Rayevsky, Anarcho-syndicalism and critical syndicalism (New York, 1988), p. 17.
  • 10. See, for example: G. Sorel, Reflections sur la violence (Paris, 1906).
  • 11. Concerning the economic views of Cornelissen, see: C. Cornelissen, Theorie de la valeur (Paris,1903).
  • 12. Cited by E. Malatesta, Anarchie (Berlin, 1995), p. 290.
  • 13. For the text of the “Charter of Amiens” see: H. Dubief (ed.), Le Syndicalisme revolutionnaire, Paris (1969), pp. 95-96.
  • 14. See: Anarchistes en exil. Corresondence inedite de Pierre Kropotkine a Marie Goldsmith 1897-1917 (Paris, 1995), p. 290.
  • 15. P. Kropotkin, preface to E. Pataud and E. Pouget, How we shall bring about the revolution (London / Winchester (Mass.), 1990); P. Kropotkin, Syndikalismus und Anarchismus (reprint) (Meppen, 1981), p. 16.
  • 16. For texts of speeches and the corresponding resolutions of the congress, see: Congres Anarchiste tenu a Amsterdam. Aout 1907. Compte-rendu analytique et resume de rapports sur l’etat du mouvement dans le monde entier, Paris (1908).
  • 17. V. Garcia, Antologia del anarcosindicalismo..., p.18.
  • 18. Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv (eh. Staatsarchiv Potsdam). Pr. Br. Rep. 30, Berlin C Polizeiprasidium, Tit.94, Lit.A, Nr. 24: Die Anarchistische Internationale. 1908-1915. (15644), Bl. 14,16.
  • 19. See: “Prefigurando futuro”: 75° aniversario de la CNT. 1910-1995, (Madrid, 1985), p. 4-8; Congresos anarcosindicalistas en Espana. 1870-1936 (Toulouse/ Paris, 1977), pp. 35-40; J. Peirats, Les anarchistes espagnols. Revolution de 1936 et luttes de toujours (Toulouse, 1989), pp. 9-13.
  • 20. See: E. Lopez Arango and D. Abad de Santillan, El anarquismo en el movimniento obrero (Barcelona,1925); A. Lopez, La FORA en el movimiento obrero (Buenos Aires, 1987).
  • 21. E. Lopez Arango and D. Abad de Santillan, op. cit., pp. 20-21.
  • 22. F. Pintos, Профсоюзное движение в Уругвае [The Labour Union Movement in Uruguay] (Moscow, 1964); C. Zubillaga and J. Balbis, Historia del movimiento sindical uruguaya (Montevideo, 1984).
  • 23. See: J. M. Hart, Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931 (Austin, 1987); F. Fernandez, El Anarquismo en Cuba (Madrid, 2000); S. Dolgoff, The Cuban Revolution: a Critical Perspective (Montreal, 1976); E. Rodriques, Socialismo e sindicalismo no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1969); E. Rodrigues, Pequena historia da imprensa social no Brasil (Florianopolis, 1997).
  • 24. J. Godio, Historia del movimiento obrero latinoamericano, Vol. 1., Anarquistas y socialistas 1850-1918 (Mexico, 1980); L. Gambone, “The Libertarian Movement in Chile,” Black Flag, 1990, January, No. 196; L. Vitale, Contribucion a una Historia del Anarquismo en America Latina (Santiago, 1998).
  • 25. El anarcosindicalismo en el Peru (Mexico, 1961).
  • 26. See: C. Cornelissen, “Uber den internationalen Syndikalismus...,” p. 150 (n31); M. Van der Linden and W. Thorpe (eds.), Revolutionary syndicalism: an international perspective..., p. 239 (n19).
  • 27. From this point on in the text, only informative footnotes are included. For footnotes including references, please see the full PDF text.

Chapter 4: Revolutionary Syndicalism during the First World War

The First World War was a serious test for the internationalist and anti-militarist position proclaimed by the syndicalists. Some of them (Alexander Berkman, Antonio Bernardo, V. García, A. Shapiro, Bill Shatov) together with E. Malatesta and Emma Goldman signed a manifesto against the war, denouncing it as a war of aggression by both sides.

They declared their intention to “incite insurrection and organize revolution.” Others (like Christiaan Cornelissen) supported the position of P. Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Charles Malato, and a number of other prominent anarchists who rallied to the side of the Entente since they considered German imperialism the “greater evil.”

The decline of revolutionary syndicalism in France could be noted even before the war. The progress of industralization brought with it a temporary stabilization in standards of living and some increase in wages; strikes acquired a more peaceful character, and among the workers and labour unions there arose a inclination to solve problems through negotiations. The leaders of the CGT (its general secretary Léon Jouhaux, P. Monatte and others) were compelled more and more to take into account the reality of industrial development. “After 1910 the ideological pretensions of the revolutionary syndicalists and the actual behaviour of workers in the CGT itself began to diverge more and more... The Amiens compromise, which pointed to the future, had nothing to offer.” The outbreak of the war deepened the crisis of French revolutionary syndicalism. The federal bureau of the CGT did not proclaim a general strike against the war, but issued a call “to defend the nation.” During the war years, representatives of the CGT collaborated in various “mixed commissions” created by the State. At the same time, an antiwar opposition surfaced within the organization in 1915, led by Alphonse Merrheim and P. Monatte, and grouped around the newspaper La Vie ouvriere. During the next year the left revolutionary syndicalists formed a Committee of Syndicalist Defense (CDS) which, despite taking an extreme anti-war position which referred to the “Charter of Amiens,” achieved a large measure of independence from the left socialist opponents of the war. In 1917 the Committee supported strike action by the workers, and spoke out against the worsening of living conditions and the intensification of labour.

In Italy the question of what stance to take regarding the war lead to a split in the USI. The group led by the general secretary A. De Ambris endorsed participation in the war on the grounds that this would facilitate the “revolutionization” of the country (a position which was labelled “revolutionary interventionism”). However this group did not enjoy the support of the majority of members and organizations of the USI. A new general secretary was elected – Armando Borghi.

In 1915 the USI endorsed the idea of a general strike against the war, although lacking the practical possibility of carrying it out. Adherents of “interventionism” were expelled from a number of unions.

The American syndicalists of the IWW launched an active struggle against entry into the war, which provoked furious persecution on the part of the government and nationalists.

In 1915 the well known IWW activist Joe Hill was executed, in 1916 five union members were shot by police in an atmosphere of nationalist hysteria, and in 1917 1,200 members of the IWW were deported to the New Mexico desert in connection with a miners’ strike in Arizona. Meanwhile, the IWW was successful in helping large strikes in Wheatland (California, 1915) and the Mesabi Range (Minnesota, 1916).

In the spring of 1917, job actions and sabotage organized by the IWW inflicted significant losses on branches of industry – woodworking and copper mining – vitally important for the prosecution of war. Between 1916 and 1917 the number of members of the IWW grew from 40,000 to 75,000, and by the end of the summer of 1917 had swollen, according to various sources, to between 125,000 and 250,000.

In Germany the syndicalist movement was virtually paralyzed soon after the start of the war, and the FVdG and its press were banned. In Great Britain as well nothing in the way of active work occurred.

The longer the war continued, the worse the lives of the workers became. In many countries strikes flared up as well as hunger riots. Anarchists and syndicalists took an active part in them. In France in May 1918, a congress of revolutionary syndicalists came out in favour of a general revolutionary strike against the war. In protest demonstrations an especially active role was played by the metalworkers of the Loire and Paris region, resulting in substantial losses to the war industry. The movement was suppressed, activists were dispatched to the front, and the leader of the Committee of Syndicalist Defense Raymond Péricat was convicted of treason against the State.
In Spain (neutral, but economically sucked into the war) in 1916 workers all over the country protested against the rise in the cost of living; the country was paralyzed. The CNT signed a “revolutionary alliance” with the socialist General Workers’ Union (UGT). In May-June 1917 Spain stood on the threshold of revolution. In August a general strike broke out, on a scale unseen up to that time, accompanied by armed struggle. The outbreak was suppressed after a battle lasting many days.

In Portugal protests against increases in the cost of living and the number of unemployed workers constantly developed into acts of resistance which often were spontaneous in character. In September 1914 unrest flared up in Lisbon, and the first fatalities occurred. In the spring of 1915 unemployed workers seized the ministry of agriculture and destroyed it. Riots and mayhem gave way to strikes, organized by the trade unions. By 1917 the revolutionary syndicalists had achieved dominance in the National Workers’ Union (UON), completely overshadowing the socialists.

Regaining their composure after the first shock, the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists tried to re-establish regular international contacts. In 1915 an international antimilitarist congress was organized in the Spanish region of Galicia. It assembled not only many prominent Spanish working class anarchists (such as Ángel Pestaña, M. Andreu, F. Miranda, L. Bouza, Eusebio Carb_, Eleuterio Quintanilla, and others), but also delegates from Portugal (notably M. J. de Sousa), France, England, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba. At the meeting the question of an international general strike was discussed. The meeting also played an important role in renewing the Spanish CNT. In December 1916 the NAS of neutral Holland called on workers’ organizations of all countries to gather at a world congress of revolutionary syndicalism, but this idea was not carried out until the end of the war.

The inability of workers’ organizations to prevent World War I, the impotence of “neutral” syndicalism, and the increase in revolutionary sentiments among the labouring masses made changes in the syndicalist movement itself all the more urgent. “The Great War swept away neutral syndicalism,” noted A. Shapiro later. To many activists it became clear that syndicalism by itself was insufficient, that it was necessary to combine the self-organized workers’ movement with direct action animated by clear revolutionary ideas.