René Berthier writes about the difference between Revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarcho-syndicalism
Revolutionary Syndicalism, or Anarcho-syndicalism
The following text is a quick overview for a comrade according to whom revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism are synonymous. It is in my opinion a mistake if we consider things from a historical point of view, that is if we base ourselves on facts, documents, etc. Of course, if we approach the question from an ideological point of view, i.e. on the idea we have of a historical phenomenon, or on the desire we project on this phenomenon, we can indulge in all the interpretations we want.
However, revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism are obviously very similar and their confusion is quite understandable.
This confusion is extremely deep-rooted even outside the anarchist movement. When I started to be involved in the French CGT in 1972, it was a period in which communism totally dominated this organization and led a fierce fight against the revolutionary currents that were trying to express themselves, in particular the Trotskyists and the anarcho-syndicalists. Curiously, the latter were relatively less mistreated than the former, because there was, according to the communist militants, a historical link between the anarcho-syndicalists and the CGT: the anarcho-syndicalists, they thought, had been “at the creation of the CGT”. They were adversaries, but somehow legitimate adversaries, they came from the workers' movement while the Trotskyists were perceived as “petty bourgeois”.
Actually there were no anarcho-syndicalists at the foundation of the CGT, but there were revolutionary syndicalists. However, the communist militants were not completely mistaken: they preserved, more or less consciously, the historical memory of another event which took place a generation later, in the 1920s: I refer to the fierce struggle between communists on the one hand, anarcho-syndicalists on the other hand, within the trade union movement, a struggle which the anarcho-syndicalists finally lost.
The confusion between the two currents is very widespread in France itself. A comrade named Daniel Colson, a sociologist and historian, addressed this question very clearly and convincingly in a book he published in 1986, but his explanations do not seem to have been taken into consideration.1
After reading his book I did some research in the mainstream, socialist and anarchist press of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to find out when the terms “revolutionary syndicalist” and “anarcho-syndicalist” appeared. Of course, this research can be modified and supplemented by further research.
To my knowledge, the term “revolutionary syndicalism” appears for the first time at the CGT congress of 1902, the one that saw the merger of the CGT itself and the Fédération nationale des Bourses du travail. It reappeared at the next congress in 1904, then at the Amiens congress in 1906. 2
I found the use of three terms which were interchangeable: “anarcho-syndicaliste”, “anarchiste syndicaliste” and “syndicalo-anarchiste”. But they do not apply to a movement but to individual anarchists who engage in trade union action. Anarcho-syndicalism as a movement emerged after the Russian Revolution. 3
There was in Russia an anarcho-syndicalist movement founded among others by a militant named Daniil Novomirsky at the time of the 1905 revolution. Novomirsky wanted to set up in Russia a movement inspired by the French CGT. This movement had taken on a certain extension, but it faced strong opposition from the anarchist-communist movement. In a way, the sometimes harsh divisions of the French anarchist movement had been reconstituted in Russia. The Russian anarcho-syndicalist movement manifested itself again during the revolution of 1917. Accounts of various congresses of the movement were disseminated to Western readers by Alexander Skirda, Paul Avrich and exiled Russian activists:
“Novomirskii’s group in Odessa adopted the name “Anarcho-Syndicalists” rather than the French term “revolu¬tionary syndicalists” partly to emphasize their distinctly Russian char¬acter, partly to indicate that their members were all anarchists (many of the revolutionary syndicalists in France had Marxist, Blanquist, and other radical affiliations), and partly to distinguish themselves from the Anarcbist-Communists, who were not as exclusively concerned with the labor movement as they were.”4
In France and Europe, anarcho-syndicalism as a movement and as a doctrine imposed itself after the Russian revolution: it is the product of a fracture which arose within the revolutionary syndicalist current between those who, with Pierre Monatte, supported the adhesion of the CGTU (a split from the CGT) to the Red International of Labour Unions, the syndical appendix of the Comintern, and those who, with Pierre Besnard, opposed it.
At the time of the founding congress of the Red International of Labour Unions in 1921, in which Gaston Leval participated as a member of the Spanish delegation, information on the internal situation in Russia and on the repression exercised by the Bolsheviks on the slightest dissent and on the labour movement in general was widely circulated. This fraction of the revolutionary syndicalist current which chose to support membership of the RILU, i.e. to support the communist regime, did so in full knowledge of the facts.5
The more lucid revolutionary syndicalists, those who opposed membership, had been much more far-sighted, they were essentially anarchists. The pro-Moscow revolutionary syndicalists, who were finally absorbed into the Communist Party or who were finally expelled from it, called the other revolutionary syndicalists “anarcho-syndicalists”. It was a term of contempt.6
Pierre Monatte was one of these pro-communist revolutionary syndicalists. He was a highly respected militant because he had opposed the policy of the CGT leadership which had supported the Sacred Union.7 After the war, he had a great reputation. His support for the CGTU's membership of the Red International of Labour Unions did much to further the policy of the Russian communists. He joined the Communist Party, naively thinking that it would respect the principle of trade union autonomy. But it was precisely because the (orthodox so to speak) revolutionary syndicalists had understood that the Bolsheviks would make no concessions on this point that they refused to join the RILU and decided to found the AIT. There is written correspondence between Monatte and a militant named Godonnèche.8 which shows their exasperation with those they disdainfully called “anarcho-syndicalists”. Monatte even decided to join the Communist Party, from which he was expelled fairly quickly, without really understanding what had happened to him.
After failed attempts at conciliation with the Russian Communists to guarantee the autonomy of the Red International of Labour Unions, the revolutionary syndicalists who rejected the conditions imposed by the Russian Communists, decided to create in Berlin in 1922 a revolutionary syndicalist international: the International Workers' Association. The founding documents of this IWA do not speak of anarcho-syndicalism, but of revolutionary syndicalism. The reason is simple: the militants considered themselves the real revolutionary syndicalists. It took more than ten years for the term “anarcho-syndicalism” to be accepted by the leading bodies of the organisations belonging to the new IWA. In 1917 the Spanish CNT itself refered to revolutionary syndicalism: “we recognise revolutionary syndicalism as the main factor of social transformation, as the means to realise anarchist conceptions”.9
There are several CNTs in France (4 or 5, I don't know) which have arisen from irreconcilable differences on questions which I can't detail. I remember that at one point one of these CNTs rejected anarchism and therefore anarcho-syndicalism and claimed to be revolutionary syndicalist, which shows that there is a difference, although I'm not sure that their interpretation is the same as mine and Colson's.
When in 1926 the CGT-revolutionary syndicalist was founded (CGT-SR) after a process that had begun with the murder in 1924 of two anarchists by the communists,10 the founding documents of the organisation continued to refer to revolutionary syndicalism. But actually it was anarcho-syndicalism: the experience of the Russian revolution, the observation of the new practices introduced by the Bolsheviks,11 in particular the infiltration of the mass organisations, led the founders of the new IWA to call into question the Amiens Charter and to introduce a novelty in its principles: from now on there is no longer any question of trade union neutrality towards parties: the IWA declares itself against political parties. Here is what essentially distinguishes revolutionary syndicalism from anarcho-syndicalism: the CGT-SR “is, outside all parties and in opposition to them, the active force which must enable all workers to defend their immediate and future material and moral interests”.12
Daniel Colson explains very clearly the initial rejection, then the progressive acceptance of the term “anarcho-syndicalism” by revolutionary syndicalists who opposed membership of the Red International of Labour Unions. He shows in particular that while the syndicalist leaders kept on for a long time to refer to revolutionary syndicalism in official documents, the movement's rank and file had much more easily integrated anarcho-syndicalism as a designation.13
Here is a quick overview of the issue. The point of view I am presenting is personal. If historical evidence contradicts my thesis, I will naturally have to revise the issue completely.
- 1Daniel Colson, Anarcho-syndicalisme et communisme, Saint-Etienne 1920-1925, Centre d’études foréziennes, Atelier de création libertaire, 1986.
- 2The CGT congresses were the subject of publications in which the minutes of the debates were published, which today makes it possible to know exactly what interventions were made and who said what. These publications also included all the information on the life of the organisation during the previous mandate: member organisations, financial report, activity report, international correspondence, etc. The 1902 Montpellier Congress, for example, is 299 pages long. (https://www.ihs.cgt.fr/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/9-1902-XIIIe-Congres-national-corporatif-Montpellier-22-27-septembre-1902.pdf) The Minutes of the CGT congresses are an essential source if you want to study revolutionary syndicalism seriously. They are available on the website of the CGT Institute of History. (https://www.ihs.cgt.fr/congres-numerises/)
- 3René Berthier, “De l'origine de l'anarcho-syndicalisme”, http://monde-nouveau.net/spip.php?article603
- 4Paul Avrich, The Russian anarchists, p. 77, note 21 (https://files.libcom.org/files/Avrich,%20Paul%20-%20The%20Russian%20Anarchists_0.PDF)
- 5 See: René Berthier, Monde libertaire online, Study in 20 episodes on the Red International of Labour unions, 4 october-26 april 2020. [ https://www.monde-libertaire.fr/?article=Histoire_:_LInternationale_syndicale_rouge_(1ere_partie) et sq.]
- 6To get an idea of the bitterness of the debates between communist trade unionists and “anarcho-syndicalists”, see the speech of Alexandre Lozovsky, president of the Red Trade Union International, at the Saint-Etienne congress of the CGT-U., 24 June to 2 July 1922(http://monde-nouveau.net/spip.php?article807).
- 7He was nonetheless mobilised and joined his regiment, which was not the case for Gason Leval who deserted.
- 8Archives Monatte, Syndicalisme révolutionnaire et communisme, éditions François Maspéro, 1968.
- 9CNT, Congreso de Zaragoza, mayo de 1917 (Cf. Antonio Barr, La CNT en los Años Rojos: Del Sindicalismo Revolucionario al Anarcosindicalismo, 1910-1926, Madrid: Akal Editor, (1981). note 70 p. 331.
- 101924 : “Le meeting de la Grange-aux-Belles raconté par May Picqueray: les premières balles bolcheviques sont pour les anarchistes !” http://monde-nouveau.net/spip.php?article594
See also: “Sur l'assassinat de deux anarchistes”, https://cras31.info/IMG/pdf/1924_assassinat_des_anarchistes_nicolas_clos_et_adrien_poncet__rue_de_la_grange-aux-belles_paris.pdf
- 11“It is the duty of any party wishing to join the Communist International to conduct systematic and unflagging communist work in the trade unions, co-operative societies and other mass workers’ organisations. Communist cells should be formed in the trade unions, and, by their sustained and unflagging work, win the unions over to the communist cause. In every phase of their day-by-day activity these cells must unmask the treachery of the social-patriots and the vacillation of the “Centrists”. The cells must be completely subordinate to the party as a whole.” (Ninth condition for admission into the Communist International.)
- 12Charte de Lyon, 1926, https://www.cnt-f.org/la-charte-de-lyon-1926.html
- 13Daniel Colson, op.cit..