Chapter 5: The Revolutionary Years

The global revolutionary wave which started in 1917 in Russia gradually enveloped other countries. Anarchists and syndicalists took an active part in events and were frequently found in the front ranks of revolutionary actions.

The general enthusiasm and mass self-organization of the workers imparted a new impulse to the libertarian workers’ movement.

The Russian anarcho-syndicalists in 1917-1918 were grouped around the newspapers Golos truda and Novy golos truda, and in 1918 they held two All-Russian conferences (in August-September and November-December). In 1920 the Russian Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists (RKAS) was created. In Ukraine the anarcho-syndicalists took part in creating the Confederation of Anarchists of Ukraine – Nabat, which exerted a substantial influence on the Makhnovist movement.

The libertarians enjoyed appreciable support in the factory committees and independent labour unions. At the end of 1917 and beginning of 1918 they were successful in organizing 25-30 thousand miners of Debaltsevo (in the Donbass) on the basis of the platform of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They were recognized by the miners of Cheremkhovo in Siberia, stevedores and workers in the cement industry in the Kuban and Novorossiysk, railway workers, workers in the perfume industry, and workers in other fields.

In 1918 the anarcho-syndicalists supported bakery workers in Moscow, Kharkov, and Kiev; postal-telegraph workers in Petrograd; river transport workers in the Volga region; etc. Some of these organizations were destroyed by the Whites, others were neutralized by the Bolshevik authorities by means of mergers and outright oppression of activists. As a result, while at the First All-Russia Congress of Trade Unions (1918) the syndicalist and Maximalist delegates represented around 88,000 workers, at the Second Congress (1919) they represented 53,000, and at the Third (1920) 35,000 at most. An attempt by some of the syndicalists to organize a General Confederation of Labour independent of the Bolshevik government was suppressed. By 1922 the unions created by the anarcho-syndicalists had been disbanded, and their publishing operations shut down. The leading activists of the movement were arrested: Vsevolod Volin, Aron Baron, Mark Mrachny, and other anarchists and syndicalists who took part in the Makhnovist movement – in November and December 1920; Grigory Maksimov – in March 1921, etc. After a ten day hunger strike in Tagansk Prison in 1921, and protests by foreign delegations arriving in Moscow in connection with the First Congress of the Profintern, Volin, Maksimov, Mrachny, and several of their comrades were deported from Soviet Russia in January 1922. Another prominent Russian anarcho-syndicalist, Aleksandr Shapiro, was arrested by the Bolshevik authorities after his return from a syndicalist conference in Berlin in the summer of 1922. After numerous protests from abroad he was also deported.

In Germany the anarchists were part of the Council movement; two prominent anarchists (Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam) took part in the executive organs of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. The FVdG resumed its activity soon after the November revolution of 1918 and began to publish its newspaper Der Sindikalist. The FVdG “presented itself as the only organizational alternative at the time for those workers disillusioned with the politics of the official parties and identifying with radical unionism.” Considering themselves the left wing of the Council movement, the syndicalists took the position that these organs were not like political parties, but should take the economic functions of management into their own hands. “Workers Councils must have control over all the revenues and expenditures of enterprises, and actively participate in accepting orders and ordering raw materials. In doing so they are acting in the interests not only of the workers but of the whole of society. In the final analysis, the workers become the sole masters of the means of labour, thereby completing their humanity,” emphasized the FVdG newspaper. The German syndicalists were influential in the Workers’ Council at the Thyssen machine-building plant in Mülheim, in the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in the same city, played a decisive role in the strike movement in Hamborn, and were represented in the Munich Soviet.

To the extent the Council movement went into decline and was integrated into the system of the Weimar republic (law about Councils of enterprises of February 4, 1920), the FVdG regarded the possibility of the spread and development of Councils within capitalist society as an illusion.

The influence of the syndicalists rose quickly after the armed suppression of a general strike in the Ruhr in April 1919. In December of that year the FVdG was transformed into the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD); almost 112,000 workers were represented at its founding congress.

This organization called for a general strike to turn back the counterrevolution, but its initiative did not find a response.

In 1919-1920 during the course of radical strikes in the Ruhr, syndicalist methods of direct action were often used. In March 1920 during a general strike against the Kapp putsch, which evolved into armed revolts in a number of regions, branches of the FAUD in many cities led the struggle, despite the cautious stance of the central executive committee of the union which condemned “putschism.” The FAUD took part in Workers’ Councils in Essen, Mülheim, Oberhausen, Duisberg, and Dortmund. In Mülheim and Hamborn Factory Councils followed the advice of the FAUD and took control (“socialized”) the gigantic Thyssen plants. Forty-five percent of the soldiers of the “Red Army of the Ruhr” were members of FAUD. In the Thuringian industrial city of Sömmerda the syndicalists and left communists declared a Soviet republic. Although the movement was harshly suppressed, the popularity of the FAUD in these revolutionary years continued to grow. In 1921 it counted 150,000 members.
In March of that year, despite the negative attitude of the executive committee in Berlin, Thuringian members of the FAUD together with left communists again took part in an armed revolt.

The ebb of the revolutionary wave and government repressions led to a rapid decrease in the membership of the organization. At its congress in 1922, only about 70,000 members were represented. However the FAUD still remained a significant force, especially at the local level (among the miners and metalworkers of the Ruhr and Rhineland, construction workers in Berlin, and workers of Central Germany). In 1923, under conditions of crisis and revolutionary fervour after the occupation of the Ruhr by Franco-Belgian troops, the anarcho-syndicalists supported many strikes and demonstrations by the unemployed, calling for a general strike and social revolution. However the economic catastrophe and mass unemployment undermined the strength of FAUD and its ranks fell to 30,000.

In Italy the revolutionary syndicalist trade union USI already in the summer of 1919, in spite of repression, unleashed a strike movement in La Spezia and a 48-hour general strike in Bologna. The USI endorsed the seizure of factories by the workers. At its third congress in Parma (December 1919), the USI proposed a system of “autonomous and free” Councils “antithetical to the State.” These Councils were seen as organs both for the defense of the workers and for the administration of the future society. The USI supported the initiatives of workers to create Factory Councils and urged that they not be allowed to fall into reformist “degeneration.” In February 1920 metalworkers belonging to the USI seized factories in Sestri-Ponente and neighbouring cities and set up Councils to manage them. In March workers’ unrest spread to Turin, and in April convulsed the whole of Piedmont and Napoli. In Pombino workers organized in the USI rose in revolt to protest the dismissal of 1,500 workers of the Ilva firm and took over the city. The syndicalists were also active as organizers of strikes of farm labourers and anti-militarist demonstrations. In July 1920 the USI called on metalworkers to carry out a wholesale seizure of factories in response to the intransigence of the owners and lockouts. In August – September armed workers created a “Red Guard” which seized around 300 enterprises in Milan; the movement then spread throughout the whole country. Factories were taken over by Councils. However the numerically dominant CGL, controlled by socialists, was content with promises of minimal concessions and, not desiring revolution, put the brakes on the movement, while the USI, with its 500,000 members (several times smaller than the CGL) did not risk continuing the struggle alone. After this the revolutionary wave in Italy went into decline, although in March of the following year the USI was able to conduct a general strike in Milan and a shutdown of the USI-controlled “houses of labour” [labour exchanges] in support of imprisoned members of the organization.

From the winter – spring of 1921 the syndicalists, along with other leftists, became the objects of armed attacks on the part of the fascists, who destroyed the “houses of labour” and interfered with the activities of left-wing trade unionists and parties throughout the whole country. “Faced with attacks by fascist gangs, the USI organized itself on various levels in order to resist the wave of reaction – both by radicalizing the social struggle and by having recourse to arms. In contrast to the indecisiveness of other parties and unions, the USI chose direct action... In order to put an end to the fascist strategy of systematic attacks in areas where level of antifascist and class struggle was high..., the USI encouraged the creation of armed volunteer groups of ‘people’s heroes’... and transformed their main ‘houses of labour’ into small fortresses, capable of withstanding attacks by fascist gangs.” The syndicalists and anarchists responded to the fascist assault with proletarian class action – with strikes – but did not succeed in vanquishing the fascists, who were, for all intents and purposes, supported by the country’s rightwing circles. It’s true the struggle against the “blackshirts” led to an agreement between the Italian trade unions to create an “Alliance of Labour” which, in July 1922, declared a general antifascist strike. In a few cities (Parma, Bari, and others) this developed into an armed revolt. But the reformists also retreated on this occasion. “The fact remains that fascism... was able to become an irresistible force and, with the support of the tried and tested repressive apparatus of the monarchist State, it was able to sweep aside all obstacles in its path. The equivocal actions of the reformist Left, the sectarianism of the Communist Party, and the military and political unpreparedness of the revolutionary forces hastened the defeat of the workers’ movement.” Several months later (in October 1922) a government came to power headed by the fascist leader B. Mussolini. After the new regime was established, naked repression led to a destruction of all the local sections of the USI, and the mass arrest or emigration of the most energetic members of the organization, which was forced to restrict its activities to the underground.

The revolutionary workers’ movement in Spain grew rapidly. New syndicates of the CNT sprang up everywhere.

By a decision taken at a Catalonian regional congress in July 1918, these syndicates were “integrated” at the local level, i.e. they were industrial rather than craft unions. The CNT already had more than one million members. A national conference of anarchists in November 1918 urged all libertarians to join the CNT. In February 1919 as a sign of solidarity with striking workers at the “La Canadiense” company, the anarchist syndicalists launched a general strike – one of the largest and most successful in the history of the Spanish labour movement. It induced panic among the ruling classes. Even the declaration of martial law did not save the owners. The action ended with the complete triumph of the workers. The centre of the workers’ struggle was Barcelona.

Large-scale events included a struggle against a lockout at the end of 1919, a general strike against repression in November 1920, and a strike of transport workers in 1923. The CNT had already started to collect statistical data which would allow it to run the economy smoothly after the forthcoming social revolution.

Then the ruling classes had recourse to a different tactic: they began to create “yellow” trade unions and terrorist gangs of “pistoleros,” murdering activists of the workers’ movement.

In December 1919 in an atmosphere of revolutionary enthusiasm, a congress of the CNT in Madrid announced as its goal the liquidation of the State and the establishing of libertarian (anarchist) communism, in other words, finally and officially rejecting the concept of “neutral syndicalism” and declaring the correctness of the tradition of the Bakuninist wing of the First International. In response to the unceasing wave of strikes the government unleashed systematic repression. The leading activists of the CNT were arrested, including the members of the Confederation’s executive (in March 1921). The organization was deprived of its leadership and forced to go underground. In the spring of 1923 the prominent working class leaders Salvador Segui and F. Comas were murdered. The anarchists and syndicalists answered counterrevolutionary terror with strikes and armed actions. The stand-off continued until the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera was installed in September 1923 and independent trade union activity was prohibited.

In Portugal the UON, in which the revolutionary syndicalists now predominated, organized a successful general strike in the Lisbon region in support of construction workers, offering armed resistance to the police and the national guard. The federation of construction workers called for an armed revolt in the course of a new general strike planned for November 1918 which had been announced by the UON.

The failure of this revolt did not discourage the workers. In 1919 protests of workers against the rising cost of living and unemployment continued. In some sectors of the economy there were breakthroughs in gaining the 8-hour workday. A workers’ congress in September 1919 transformed the UON into a united organization of the Portuguese workers – the General Confederation of Labour (CGT). The principles of revolutionary syndicalism were enshrined in its articles.

All the tendencies in the Confederation were in agreement that pure trade unionism was insufficient. The Portuguese CGT included not only trade unions but, starting from 1922, also students and artists, tenants’ associations, consumer cooperatives, and “groups of syndicalist solidarity.” The number of members of the CGT, which reached 120,000 – 150,000 in 1919, had fallen somewhat by 1922 but the organization as before still united the majority of organized workers in the country. However its activities to a significant degree were spontaneous in character. They consisted usually in the organization of a sudden tide of protest which soon ebbed without being channeled into building a strong organization and solidarity between workers (although many strikes were carried out successfully, and in February 1924 the largest workers’ demonstration in Portuguese history took place with more than 100,000 participants).

A rebirth of the revolutionary workers’ movement began also in France. The dampening of the strike movement by the reformist leadership of the French CGT ignited the trade union opposition grouped around P. Monatte and the newspaper Vie ouvriere. This opposition was strengthened at the congress of the CGT in September 1919, and it formed its own coordinating body and it started setting up “Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees” (CRS), trying to establish its influence in individual unions and “bourses de travail.”

It succeeded in consolidating its position in the union of railway workers. At the beginning of 1920 the country was paralyzed by railroad strikes. The revolutionary syndicalists organized a general strike for May 1, which was joined by metalworkers, construction workers, dockers, and miners.

But the hopes this insurgency would grow into revolution were not realized. In September 1921 at a conference of the opposition in Lyon a Central Committee of the CRS was created, headed by P. Monatte. In December 1921 at a congress in Paris the revolutionary syndicalists announced their split from the CGT and in July 1922 at a congress in Saint-Étienne they created the new “Unitarian CGT” (CGTU).

Anarchists and syndicalists were active in the workers’ movements of some other European countries. The membership of SAC in Sweden reached 32,000 workers in 1920, chiefly bricklayers, construction workers, workers in the forestry and paper industries, and metalworkers. Although it remained small in comparison with the social-democratic union movement, it participated in a broad range of post- war strikes. The syndicalist federation of Norway and Danish syndicalists had close connections with SAC. The Netherlands Labour Secretariat (NAS) strengthened its own position during the war years, thanks to its energetic support of the movement against military service and the high cost of living, and engaged in a wave of strikes and protests in the first post-war years. Its membership grew to 49,000 in 1918 but as before it was smaller than unions of a socialdemocratic or clerical persuasion. The failure of strike actions in 1920-1922 led to a shrinkage in the membership (by the autumn of 1922 the NAS was down to 26,000 members) and favoured the intensification of internal disagreements.

In other regions of Europe, despite the presence of a strong anarchist movement (Bulgaria) or a definite syndicalist tendency in the union movement (Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, Belgium), in the postwar years it did not prove possible to create an anarcho-syndicalist union central.

The revolutionary wave which began in Russia, coupled with the postwar economic difficulties, inspired a powerful expansion in working class actions in Argentina, in which the FORA and its member unions played a leading role. The most important of these actions were the general strike in Buenos Aires in January 1919, which was accompanied by battles at the barricades and harsh repressions (“the tragic week”), a general strike in the capital in May 1920, and a strike and revolt of agricultural labourers in Patagonia (1921) which was suppressed by government troops with great cruelty. The Uruguayan FORU in 1917-1921 virtually headed the strike movement in the country, organizing a series of stubborn general and local strikes. In Brazil the anarchists even during the war period were at the epicentre of the movement against militarism and increases in food prices due to profiteering. Massive general strikes took place in 1917 in São Paulo, Santos, and Rio de Janeiro. In the course of the struggle the workers were able to achieve significant concessions and the adoption of labour legislation. In November 1918 the anarchists of Rio de Janeiro rose in revolt, intending to overthrow the government and proclaim a “communist republic.” The uprising was suppressed, and the government smashed the pro-anarchist workers’ federation of the state, which included as many as 150,000 workers.

However the anarchists still maintained their position in the workers’ movement which was confirmed by the outcome of the 3rd congress of the Brazilian workers’ confederation in 1920. The destruction of the anarchist workers’ movement happened only after the army mutinies of 1924.

In Mexico the anarchists criticized the collaboration of working class leaders with government authorities, and also the pro-government policies of the trade union activists headed by Luis Morones, who founded the Mexican Regional Workers’ Confederation (CROM) in May 1918. Anarchist and syndicalist groups convened a congress in 1921 in Mexico; at it the creation of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) was announced. It was based on the unions of textile workers, streetcar conductors, telephone operators, oil field workers, etc. During the 1920’s the anarcho-syndicalists led the strike struggle of these categories of wage workers. The confederation, which had a membership of about 60,000 workers, endorsed “libertarian communism.” In Chile the anarchists and syndicalists worked in the Federation of Chilean Workers until 1921, making up its extreme left wing, but then the centre of attraction of anarchists became the Chilean section of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1918-1919, which had a membership of over 25,000 members in 1920 – including dockers, seafarers, construction workers, shoemakers, etc. The Chilean IWW took an active part in actions against the high cost of living and shortages in food supplies. It also supported the student movement and was active until the installation of the military dictatorship of Carlos Ibáñez in 1927.

Anarcho-syndicalist union centrals occupied a leading position in the workers’ movement in a number of other countries of Latin America. The regional workers’ centre of Paraguay headed a strike movement, including a strike of electrical workers and a general strike in Ascención in 1923-1924. In Bolivia the Local Labour Federation of La Paz (founded in 1918) and the syndicalist miners’ union launched a desperate strike struggle. Peruvian anarcho-syndicalists (in particular, stevedores, bakers, textile workers, etc.) continued a stubborn struggle for the inauguration of the 8-hour day and against the rising cost of living. In the midst of a wave of general strikes in 1919, which took on a revolutionary character, a Peruvian regional workers’ federation sprang up; the government was compelled to agree with the demanded reduction in the length of the workday. The movement was destroyed by a military dictatorship in the middle 1930’s, and influence in the trade unions shifted to communist party members and national-reformists. In Ecuador under the influence of anarchists a regional federation of workers appeared in 1922. In October – November of the same year, it organized the largest general strike in the history of the country in Guayaquil, in the course of which the city was for a time under the control of the workers. The harsh suppression of the strike dealt the movement a heavy blow from which it recovered somewhat only in the second half of the 1920’s, when the anarcho-syndicalists were able to revive a number of labour unions.

In Cuba the anarchists and syndicalists predominated in the leadership of the Workers’ Federation of Havana (1921) and the National Federation of Workers of Cuba (1925), up to the point when they were destroyed by the dictatorship of J. Machado in 1925-1927. It was this disaster, as the Cuban communists themselves have admitted, which allowed them to establish their control of the workers’ movement of the country.

In the countries of Central America the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists for a time enjoyed an appreciable influence in organizations of the labour movement, including: the General Confederation of Labour of Costa Rica (1913- 1923), the Workers’ Federation of Panama (1921-1923), the General Labour Union of the Workers of Panama (mid 1920’s), the Regional Federation of Workers of Salvador, the Committee for Trade Union Activity of Guatemala (end of the 1920’s), etc.1

The workers’ movement in Japan became radicalized in a hurry in the first postwar years under the influence of the food riots of 1918 and the wave of strikes of 1919-1921, in the course of which methods of direct action were widely used by the workers. In the most important union central of the country, Yu-Ai-Kai, the influence of the anarchists, revolutionary syndicalists, and adherents of Russian Bolshevism gained strength. At their insistence the congress of Yu-Ai-Kai in 1920 approved the principles of class struggle and direct action; in 1921 the union central was renamed the Japanese Federation of Labour (Sodomei). But already by 1922 a regroupment of forces in the workers’ movement of the country took place. Reformist leaders of the union central and the communists came out in favour of a re-organization of the union movement on a sectoral basis, while the anarchists and the syndicalists who were close to them upheld federalist principles and the autonomy of labour unions. The libertarians left Sodomei, but a number of unions remained under their influence, including the printers, mechanics, metalworkers, electrical workers, and the regional association of unions of Tokyo. [

The association of anarchist unions of Japan was able to impede the repressions after the “great earthquake” of September 1923, in the course of which the leading anarcho- syndicalist Ōsugi Sakae was killed. Only in 1926 did a labour union central appear which approved the principles of anarchist communism – the All-Japanese Libertarian Federation of Trade Unions (Zenkoku Jiren). This federation existed until the mid-1930’s, when it was annihilated by government persecutions.

In China the anarchists were the organizers of the first labour unions of the modern type in Guangzhou in the 1910’s, and also organized the first strikes. At the beginning of the 1920’s the workers’ organizations of this city, being under the influence of anarchists (especially the dockers and service workers), were united in a Workers’ Mutual Aid Society; however, in 1923-1924 it fell apart. In November 1920, on the initiative of anarchists a Society of Workers of the Province of Hunan was formed, uniting the workers of the most varied branches of heavy and light industry. It organized important demonstrations of textile workers, but in January 1922 it was destroyed by the provincial authorities and its leaders executed. In the 1920’s the centre of the anarchist and syndicalist movement shifted to Shanghai, where the anarchists and other non-communist workers’ unions formed a Federation of Labour Unions in March 1924. It participated actively in a strike movement. But in 1927 control of the federation passed into the hands of members of the Guomindang. In 1926 anarchists and anarchosyndicalists formed a Federation of People’s Struggle, which affiliated to the IWA; this organization ceased its existence under conditions of civil war towards the end of the 1920’s.

In the majority of colonial countries of the Far East, where the social struggle was centred on the acquisition of independence for a national state, the anti-statist slogans of the anarchists were not widely disseminated. A group of revolutionary emigrants from India led by M. P. T. Acharya adopted anarcho-syndicalist positions. The group tried to carry on work in Indian labour unions, but its propaganda was suppressed by the British colonial authorities. In Korea and Taiwan the anarchists, strongly influenced by their Japanese comrades, acted in the 1920’s to create a number of unions and underground groups which were soon wiped out. Anarchist unions of Chinese workers were active in the 1920’s in Malaya and in other countries of Southeast Asia.

In the postwar years the activity of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) increased – this was a special variety of the syndicalist movement. Like European syndicalists, its members embraced the idea of unions carrying out the revolution and running things themselves, and they applied the tactics of direct action and were critical of parliamentarism and political parties. However they rejected federalism and were in favour of creating “one big union” of all the workers with divisions according to various branches of industry.

Anarchists did not play a decisive role in the unions of the IWW, in fact activists of various leftist Marxists parties were much in evidence. In the U.S.A. members of the IWW suffered greatly from government repression in 1917-1920. Another industrial unionist labour central – the One Big Union (OBU) – arose in 1919 in Canada and headed a powerful general strike in the western part of the country. The North American IWW and OBU did not develop along the lines of anarcho-syndicalism. In Australia and New Zealand, the initial groups of the IWW carried on work in the existing labour unions, trying to encourage them to associate on an industrial basis and adopt the principles of the IWW. They suffered greatly from repression during the First World War, and then many of their leading activists joined communist parties. In South Africa industrial unionists were grouped around the IWW (1910-1914), the International Socialist League (1915-1921), and the Industrial Socialist League (1918-1921). They acted as organizers of major strikes (including a general strike of miners in 1921-1922) and a number of active unions of “whites,” “blacks,” and Indian workers. But after 1921 the majority of the South African unionists joined communist parties.

  • 1. In Columbia and Venezuela the anarcho-syndicalists tendencies began to have an impact only towards the middle and end of the 1920’s.