Syndicalism - an introduction

Syndicalism - an introduction

A short explanation of revolutionary syndicalism and industrial unionism as well as some notes on their histories.

Syndicalism refers to the practice of organising workers into unions to fight for their interests. Originally, the term comes from the French work for Trade Unionism (Syndiclisme), but in English the term specifically refers to rank-and-file unionism.

There are two major tendencies: Revolutionary Syndicalism, typified by the French CGT, and Industrial Unionism, typified by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). A related tendency is anarcho-syndicalism, but its specifically anarchist politics differentiate it from syndicalism, which is purely economic, or 'non-political'. The idea behind syndicalism is to create an industrial, fighting union movement. Syndicalists therefore advocate decentralised, federated unions that use direct action to get reforms under capitalism until they are strong enough to overthrow it.

Revolutionary Syndicalism has its roots in the anarchist movement, and can be traced back to the libertarian tendency in the First International Workingmens’ Association, when prominent Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that: "the future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal." Industrial Unionism has its roots in the Marxist tradition, with the IWW’s famous 1905 ‘Preamble to the Constitution’ quoting Marx’s dictum “instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’”

The origins of syndicalism - libertarian socialists meet at Basel in 1869
The origins of syndicalism - libertarian socialists meet at Basel in 1869

Despite these different origins, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism converged on a very similar approach. The central idea is that trade unions divide workers by trade, which can (and has) end up in scabbing. In America, industrial disputes would sometimes see violent clashes between workers of different unions who would ignore each other’s requests to respect picket lines. The aim of syndicalism is to unite all workers into ‘One Big Union’ controlled by the members, from the grassroots.

This is obviously in deep contrast to the current reformist unions who are filled with layer upon layer of bureaucrats who can call off industrial action regardless of the wishes of the membership. This kind of union democracy puts control of workers’ struggles where it belongs: with the workers themselves.

Both Industrial Unionism (as per the 1905 IWW constitution) and Revolutionary Syndicalism (as per the 1906 Charter of Amiens) are non-political, aiming to build unions for all workers regardless of political persuasions. However, this doesn’t mean syndicalists are indifferent to the great social and political issues of the day. Rather syndicalists argue that only by building democratic, workers’power at the point of production (‘industrial democracy’) that social ills can be addressed:

When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, we see no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, or large scale crime, or any of our serious social problems to continue.

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Comments

Roughneck Wobbl...
Apr 4 2014 04:33

I can't speak much on the CGT, but I think this article makes a couple inaccurate statements on the IWW I'd like to address.

While you correctly make the distinction that the IWW (at least historically) categorized itself itself as Industrial Unionist, you suggest that it's none-the-less a syndicalist organization (which many consider it to be). You then go on to say:

Quote:
Syndicalists therefore advocate decentralised, federated unions

If this is meant to include the IWW as well, as a syndicalist union, then it is categorically wrong. The IWW does not and never has advocated for a federated union structure, instead it has, from its inception, called for the construction of the One Big Union, which is a unitary structure divided into departments and branches (which you do contradictorily state later).

Quote:
Revolutionary Syndicalism has its roots in the anarchist movement, and can be traced back to the libertarian tendency in the First International Workingmens’ Association, when prominent Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that: "the future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal." Industrial Unionism has its roots in the Marxist tradition, with the IWW’s famous 1905 ‘Preamble to the Constitution’ quoting Marx’s dictum “instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’”

While all of this is accurate to an extent, it makes it sound as though anarchism and anarchists played no role in the creation and operation of the IWW. There were anarchists present at the founding convention and throughout its entire life, the IWW has had prominent anarchists in its ranks, running and organizing the union, from 1905 to today. Not to suggest that its organizers and officers were all anarchists. As well, I don't think it's correct to say that the IWW's roots are from the Marxist tradition. Instead, depending on how you define "roots", the IWW ideologically came largely from Class Struggle Unionism, or less developed ideas of Industrial Unionism. Never the less, Marxism, as well as anarchism, political (electoral) socialism, and Industrial Unionist-style syndicalism all played an important role in the foundation of the IWW.

Quote:
[...] Industrial Unionism (as per the 1905 IWW constitution) [...] [is] non-political, aiming to build unions for all workers regardless of political persuasions.

Finally, this statement about the non-political organization of the IWW is simply not true. In 1905, Daniel De Leon, of the Socialist Labor Party, one of the groups that co-founded the IWW, pushed through a statement into the Preamble calling for electoral action of the workers to bring about change (interesting to note that this immediately proceeded a sentence suggesting that electoralism is useless). This difference in ideas of electoralism and non-involvement in electoralism eventually led members opposed to electoralism (many of whom were anarchists!) to basically lock De Leon out of the 1908 convention where he was expelled and his supporters left in protest. The clause that De Leon had added to the Preamble 3 years earlier at the founding was then removed.