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).