Anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th Century: a review

A review of Vadim Damier's Anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th Century by Jared Davidson

Submitted by Jared on June 7, 2010

For those who can read Russian, Vadim Damier’s two-volume study of the International Workers’ Association (IWA) is a comprehensive history of the worldwide anarchist labour movement in the early 20th Century. For the rest of us, Malcom Archibald has translated what is essentially a streamlined version of Damier’s larger work into English. Anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th Century is a broad survey of a movement often marginalised by Marxist academics, and is a welcome addition to the existing literature on anarcho-syndicalism. As Damier illustrates, anarcho-syndicalism was far from a outmoded, ineffective or petty-bourgeois movement — the practice of direct action and revolutionary struggle controlled and self-managed by the workers themselves extended to all countries of the world.

Damier: “Its appearance in so many settings has created a daunting task for historians who would do justice to its scope and diversity.” Exploring this diversity and its development from revolutionary syndicalism, its theoretical and tactical differences as it was practiced worldwide, and historical examples of anarcho-syndicalism in action, the reader gets a sense of how hundreds of thousands — indeed millions — of workers embraced the ideology of anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian communism, and put those ideas into practice.

The actions of anarchist-influenced workers and their struggle for freedom truly was an international movement. Although Europe is often the focus for historians, Damier does a great job in showing that stronger and numerically larger movements existed in Latin America — not to mention Japan, Korea and China, Africa, Eastern European nations and even Australasia. And although Damier does examine in detail the Spanish Revolution (and the fatal rejection of core anarchist principles by the leadership of the CNT), the international framework used throughout the book is a refreshing change from Eurocentric anarchist historiography and Spanish Exceptionalism.

The origins of the international syndicalist (and in turn anarcho-syndicalist) movement is explored in the first chapters. Using examples from around the globe, Damier argues that an explicit shift from revolutionary syndicalism to anarcho-syndicalism was signaled in 1919. In a speech made by German anarchist Rudolf Rocker at the 12th Congress of the FVdG (Free Association of German Trade Unions), a synthesis of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism was put forward in opposition to co-opertaion with parliamentary activity, political affiliation, and co-operation with the German Communist Party. According to Damier, Rocker’s ‘Decleration about the Principles of Syndicalism’ helped clarify the ideology on which the anarcho-syndicalist movement was to be based.

Damier dedicates valuable space to the years up to and including the 1922 congress of the IWA, as it included debate on how anarcho-syndicalists should organise themselves, what tactics and structures enabled the most effective struggle, and what role they saw for their organisation after the revolution. The FVdG congress certainly influenced the IWA’s own decleration, the ‘Principles of Revolutionary Syndicalism’. As W. Thorpe points out, the decleration “signified an important advance in syndicalist thought, since it confirmed and made clear what had often only been implied in pre-war European syndicalism”. It put forward more strongly the opposition to political parties, the methods of the Bolsheviks and their associated trade unions, and moved past the political neutrality of the 1906 Charter of Amiens.

In Rocker’s 1919 speech, he had made it clear that the role of the anarcho-synidcalist union was not to manage the successful revolution. Instead, the management of production and consumption were to be transferred into the hands of Councils: “the organisation of enterprises and workshops by economic councils, the organisation of the whole of production by industrial and agricultural associations, and the organisation of consumption by workers exchanges”. The explicitly anarchist communist Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation (FORA) in its ‘Memorandum’ “catergorically rejected the notion that labour unions — organs which arose under capitalism in response to capitalist conditions and fulfilled a service as the best means of worker resistance against the State and Capital — would be transformed in the course of revolution into the basis and ruling organs of the new society”:

“With the liquidation of the capitalist production system and rule of the state, the syndicalist economic organs will end their historic role as the fundamental weapon in the struggle with the system of exploitation and tyranny. Consequently, thse organs must give way to free associations and free federations of free producers and consumers”.

Debates around structure and industrialisation continued into the 1920’s and 30’s. These were essentially debates between communist modes of distribution and a collectivist revisionism, which for sections of the French CGT and the German FAUD seemed more suitable to the industrial development at that time. Once the bearer of anarchist communism, many of the FAUD’s leading activists began to see distribution according to need as a ‘crazy idea’, calling instead for the study of capitalist economic categories, distribution according to ‘productivity’, and that ‘rationing by means of monetary regulation’ was ‘fairer’ than anarchist communism. The idea of stages of development crept into the movement. French theoretican Pierre Besnard advocated organisation in imitation of capitalist economic formations, so that the unions could become the nervous system of the new society, the organs of economic coordination and planning. The first stage, which Besnard called ‘libertarian communism’ would involve the preservation of the monetary system and distribution ‘according to labour’. Only the second stage (’free communism’) would carry to completion the ideal of a self-managed communist society.

For some in the IWA this signaled a dangerous influence of capitalist thinking, the depature from anarchist communism, and a slide towards centralisation and Marxist ‘gigantomania’. The FORA were particularly critical, and as Damier argues, presented one of the first thorough critiques of the Marxist viewpoint on history and historical determinism. “The new, free society should not develop according to the laws of the old society... but represent a decisive, radical break with it”. Socialism was not just an economic problem, but also a cultural and psychological one which extended outside of the factory gates. The self-activity and struggle of the workers themselves was more important in the destruction of capital than some linear stage of revolution outside of their control.

The Japanese federation Zenkoku Jiren were even more vocal in their opposition:

“The current system, they said, was based on the division of labour and the consequent hierarchy; this division and its attendant mechanisation deprived workers of any responsibility and required coordinating and administrative authorities incompatible with libertarian communism. Therefore the structure of the future free society could not be compatible with the existing authoritarian and capitalist structure. The new society must surmount industrialism with its soul destroying division of labour and base itself on a different conception of the interrelation of production and consumption, but with the emphasis on consumption”.

Instead, they argued for anarcho-syndicalism which challenged the continuation of society into groups according to occupation, the preservation of the factory system and centralisation, and the organisation of society on the basis of industrial unions. These would simply perpetuate the division of labour and the hierarchy of management. Instead, the free association of communes and councils would unite consumption and production after the revolution: organising according to a capitalist framework in the here and now would hinder, not help, these future structures.

The above arguments illustrate the diversity within the anarchist labour movement during it’s development. Damier also shows that these developments were important for a visible minority, if not the majority of workers in the 20th Century. In many cases struggle was more influenced by the ideas of Bakinin and Kropotkin than Marx or Engels — a point especially relevant now that Marxist-Leninism is relegated to the dustbin of history, and as workers look for a real alternative to both state socialism and capitalism. In illustrating the international movement and it’s debates, Damier makes available important themes for a new generation of anarchists, and helps point to current understandings of anarcho-syndicalism (such as ‘Strategy and Struggle’ by the Solidarity Federation). Although there were (and are) variants within the movement, it’s clear from Damier’s research that ‘Strategy and Struggle’ has historical precedence.

Unfortunately, the book gets a little sparse on actual examples of contemporary anarcho-syndicalism — only briefly touching on the splits within the IWA after World War Two, and more recent struggles. However, to have a broad survey of a movement and it’s ideas in one place is a valuable resource in itself and worth checking out. Anyone interested in a basic history of anarcho-syndicalism, the IWA, and a libertarian alternative to capitalism will be well pleased.



14 years ago

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Submitted by akai on June 7, 2010

Yes, really the book is worth reading. Hopefully someday we will get some book with a good analysis of current anarchosyndicalism, although I suppose platformists may be quicker in producing something like this than anarchosyndicalists.


13 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by flaneur on October 26, 2010

Anyone with a link for this? Amazon has it listed for £30.

Juan Conatz

13 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 27, 2010


13 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by flaneur on October 27, 2010



13 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by syndicalist on January 4, 2011

I'm now starting to re-read the book. Having some prior knowledge of the IWA, I found some of the historical stuff to be a repetition for me --- not for one who has little knowledge.

The part of the book I actually am enjoying is the inter-war period. In particular the economic and social debates which Jared goes into. For anyone interested in trying to figure out what "libertarian communism" meant to the early IWA participants, this is the place to get those views. They are well across the board and details that there really is no such thing as a monolithic perspective on "libertarian communism."

I heatedly recommend the book. Not only because it is informative, but purchasing the book supports our good friends and comrades at Bact Cat Press.