Syndicalism and the SAC: a short introduction

A history of the Swedish syndicalist union SAC, written by a member.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 26, 2011

The following text is used in studies by new members in the Stockholm-Gotland District of SAC. It is not specifically intended to reflect any aspect within the SAC today but should be used to generate discussion.

It is a general and popular introduction to SAC's history and a complement to Sven Lagerström's course in Syndicalism. If you have further questions we can be contacted at the address below. We hope that it will give some insight into syndicalism and an understanding of its specific form as developed in Sweden.

Ingemar Sjöö, who compiled the material, works as a railway engine mechanic and is a member of Gothenburg's LS of SAC.

SAC and Syndicalism, A short introduction

"The present ruling classes have forfeited their authority. We must take it from them, with all the power and resolution that the situation demands. The responsibility lies upon the working classes themselves. Do we have an alternative?"


The syndicalist doctrine originated in France, and it is also in the Latin countries (like France, Spain and in Latin America) that this movement historically has spread the most.

Even the name itself has Latin origins. The French word syndicalisme translates simply as trade union activity: when the ideology was introduced to Sweden it was spoken of as revolutionary syndicalism, since the concept itself was new to the language the first half was disposed of and it came to be known simply as syndicalism and has stayed that way up to now. The word syndicalism is synonymous with revolutionary syndicalism.

There have certainly been other trade unions which claimed to have a revolutionary social vision, but still cannot classify themselves as syndicalist. Syndicalism is distinguished by two principle elements:

1/ the federal organisational structure with a strong local autonomy

2/ the rejection of all forms of political party ties.

Both of characteristics can be traced back to its origins in France.

The necessity of thinking backwards We are so accustomed to movements, no matter what kind, always starting with a manifesto that we are easily confused and stumped when we try to form an idea of how syndicalism has grown and established itself as a specific tendency in the labour movement. Let us take Marxism as a comparison to show the difference:

Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 when they were still relatively young. By the time they experienced the mass organisations based upon their ideas, their beards had turned quite grey. They never saw their theories put into practise until old age. So then: first came the theory, expressed in their manifesto, then, after a few decades, came the practice, organisation etc.

There is always a risk of going wrong in the study of the growth of syndicalism if we are not clear from the very beginning that the development of syndicalism is quite the opposite. That is: first the practice and then, in a successive process of development, the syndicalist theory. Really it cannot be said that syndicalist theory was formed until the end of 1910s or the beginning of the 1920s. Professor Henriksson-Holmberg characterised syndicalism as "the gradual and post-factum theorising of the results of practical learning."

CGT and the Labour Exchanges (Bourse du Travail)

The world's first syndicalist union has tangled and muddy beginnings that is not worthwhile going into deeply here. But its birth, by and large, can be described as a fusion of a radical but a rather conventionally structured union called CGT, Confederation General du Travail, (General Confederation of Labour) and a difficult-to-describe movement which was a mixture of a labour exchange, Workers Education Institute, Peoples House, and workers assistance association. The picture is further complicated because on the one hand the movement received public assistance for its activity and on the other it was controlled by the members themselves. The movement was called Bourse du Travail, or workers exchange in English. It had a federal organisational structure which can be seen in SAC today.

In every important industrial centre there was a local Labour Exchange which organised or at least tried to organise every worker who lived or worked in the area, regardless of trade or profession. The boundary lines were decided on a purely geographical basis. All labour exchanges belonged to a central organisation for the whole of France, but the central organisations' opportunities to involve themselves in local affairs were strictly limited, as long as the particular labour exchanges respected the commonly held statutes and punctually paid their dues. The Labour Exchanges local autonomy compares well with the SAC's local organisations (LS).

The working practices of the labour exchanges demonstrated two characteristic qualities which were to develop into modern syndicalism.

1/ the federal/geographical organisational form

2/ the endeavour to encompass as much as possible all the aspects of daily life and not limit itself to a narrow union perspective.

The working class was seen as a social class and not just a category on the labour market.

The ban on political parties as a measure for survival

The CGT for its part had a conventional union structure. Contact between workers of different professions in the same locality were weak and insignificant. CGT's special contribution to the syndicalist ideology lies in its resistance to the party politicising of the movement - which from the very start had little to do with an ideological standpoint but is based on a practical explanation: Under the thirty years that followed the defeat of the workers in the Paris Commune 1871, the working classes and indeed anything that was left-wing was pushed back on all fronts in France.

In periods of adversity it is usual for movements to deteriorate and fractionalise amidst internal controversy - sometimes over nonsensical issues - and that was what quickly happened to the political part of the labour movement. The socialists split into five different parties and among anarchists there were any amount of different shades.

The only workers organisation left with any strength was the trade union organisation, namely CGT. There was widespread fear that the half dozen left-wing parties and sects would bring their internal fights and disputes into the CGT which, at worst, would split the union itself. So then: no propagandising for one or the other political parties within the framework of the CGT was allowed.

This "ban on political parties" was at the beginning a practical measure for the survival for the union in one particular country at a particular point in time. But gradually the notion grew stronger that a union movement could manage and settle its own affairs itself without any "political" wing, the union could take upon itself both union and party objectives. (Therefore SAC's continuing emphasis on being a socio-political movement.) This tendency was reinforced when CGT and the Labour Exchanges merged in 1902, because the Labour Exchanges described above had a broader scope than the limited one of the CGT trade union.

Counteracting internal divisions among workers

Within the new merged organisation the unions vertical trade and branch structure was maintained under the names federations and syndicates, terms which are still used in SAC today.

An example of a federation could be the Construction Workers Federation which combines all syndicalist construction workers in Sweden, at present about 1250 in number. A syndicate is a local sub-department within one or more neighbouring Local Organisations. For example Gothenburg's Construction syndicate organises a hundred building workers in three nearby Local Organisations (There is no adequate translation for the Swedish word lokala samorganisation, "sam" is a derivative of "together" and lokala means local.)

But, just as what later happened in the SAC, the vertical structure became subordinated to the horizontal, geographical units. The seat of power became situated in the Local Organisations , which really were a direct offshoot of the Labour Exchanges.

The local sovereignty over its own affairs was maintained in the new combined CGT. The LS was always superior to the syndicate in decision making. The reason for this was to deliberately counteract group-egoism in the different branches and trades. The workers were to be encouraged to regard themselves primarily as members of a social class and secondly as representatives for a particular profession. A common, collective activity on the part of the workers could only be realised if the organisational and psychological divisions within the class disappeared.

The Young Socialists

Following CGT's example syndicalist unions were founded in a number of countries, including Sweden. In order to understand the social and political climate in which SAC was born it is necessary to be familiar with the Young Socialist Movement's position at the beginning of the century.

Sweden's Social Democratic Labour Party (SAP) was founded in 1889 and seven years later the Social Democratic Youth Association, known as the Young Socialists, was started. The youth movement quickly radicalised in a revolutionary direction and came into confrontation with the mother party, the differences became so insurmountable that by 1908 a "divorce" was unavoidable. When two leading figures (Carl Schröder and "Hinke" Bergegren) were expelled from SAP the whole membership followed and founded a new independent party, the Young Socialist Party.

It was mostly through the Young Socialists and their relatively widespread publications, above all Brand and Lysekils-Kuriren, that syndicalist ideas became known in Sweden.

We sometimes encounter the mistaken opinion the "SAC was started by the Young Socialists." In reality the process wasn't that simple and straight forward. Brand and other publications presented syndicalism, anarchism, Marxism and other schools of thought which the editors, with a zeal for adult education, believed that young working Swedes should be familiar with. It would be going too far however to suggest that they directly propagandised for one or the other schools. During its first years the Young Socialists were not especially adamant in any particular ideological question.

When talk began of starting a syndicalist union in Sweden many were very sceptical (among these was Bergegren) to such a project. It was also feared that it would lead to disintegration within the labour movement, (many young socialists were active in LO (Swedish TUC).

The simplest explanation would be that the Young Socialists were split on the question and the southern Swedish section was the most positive to the idea.

The Big Strike

It was also in the south that the initiative was eventually taken to found the SAC. But probably it would never have happened without the General Strike which was called by LO in 1909. It can only be described as a fiasco for the workers - surrender was declared after four months with nothing gained whatsoever. The defeat led to intensive discussions as to what went wrong.

The young Socialists blamed it on incompetent leadership (LO and SAP) and on a series of strange decisions they had taken which weakened the strike front. After the defeat the LO lost in round figures half of its membership.

It was most likely a sense of defeat and resignation that caused the mass exodus from LO but the Young Socialists fancied instead that it was a sign of a radical protest movement which was an excellent prerequisite to start a syndicalist union, which could be as large as or even bigger than the LO.

The founding of the SAC

An intensive round of consultations began and a brochure was sent out in huge numbers in which it turned out that the new organisation was christened before it was even officially founded. The brochure was headed: Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation byggd på Lokala Samorganisationer (The Central Organisation of Sweden's Workers based on Local Organisations). The fact is that several LS were started before SAC came into being (the oldest being Helsingborg's LS in 1909).

A founding congress was held on midsummer's weekend in 1910. An administrative body was elected, the Central Committee (CK) and from this an Executive Committee (AU) which would take care of the daily routines. Federations, syndicates and districts were first established a few years later.

After five years SAC had only 4,800 members and 98 LS. A large number, about 25%, were quarry workers from the provinces of Bohus and Blekinge.

The trend changed in 1916 when the membership doubled in one year to 9,300. The first World War raged in Europe and the war situation hit the flow of provisions even in neutral Sweden.

There was a lack of control over food and rationing. Speculators bought up all the farm produce they could get their hand on for export to Germany, where they made huge profits. Malnourishment was widespread. This led to political radicalisation of the broad majority and in 1916 the radical alternatives were Young Socialists and SAC. (The communists came into being the following year.)

SAC's membership

The categories of workers which were attracted to SAC during its first years were made up of road and construction workers, forestry and mine workers, as well as the quarry workers. SAC wasn't then or even later especially strong among industrial workers. Another peculiarity is that SAC organised a larger percent of trades that had a lower prestige and status. In certain cases this low status was combined with low wages while in others, for example railway navvies, they could by being in SAC and using syndicalist methods of struggle raise their material standards to that of the highest paid among the working class.

A sizeable number of SAC's members worked in branches where the work was relatively free and independent, often outdoors, for example in forestry and construction.

The tendency of organising a relatively larger share of low status work is to be seen during the whole of SAC's history until the present day and is probably not just a coincidence. If you are not in a position of using your status as a tradesman or professional worker, traditions or general reputation as an argument in your cause then you are obliged to resort to a tougher, more combative stance than others. With SAC's early won reputation for being a pronounced fighting organisation it is maybe not so unusual that SAC attracted just these occupations.

"Social enemy no. 1"

Understandably the employers were moderately enchanted by SAC's existence. The Swedish Employers Association (SAF) records in its annual report for 1913: "By and by it will be deemed necessary not to give employment to a person who belongs to a syndicalist group of workers."

The mainstream societies' sentiments for SAC were hardly enhanced by the very active role that the organisation played in the wave of social unrest that began with the hunger riots in Västervik and ended in open revolt in Seskarö in Norrbotten (north of Sweden). These incidents first ebbed out when the government in an unusual flurry of activity legalised general and equal franchise (one man, one vote) in Sweden.

The social democrat Sigurd Klockare wrote in his book "the Swedish revolution" that "the syndicalist inspired action in Västervik 16 April 1917 set the standard for a series of other actions around the country."

One could say that the working class was offered the right to vote as a miserable bone instead of the whole social beef steak - and it swallowed the bait.

It is a piece of historical irony that non-parliamentarians such as the syndicalists actively hastened the introduction of voting rights in Sweden.

On the whole SAC with only 10 percent of organised labour in its ranks was responsible for the larger part of the open conflicts and disputes in the labour market. Added to that are all the small strikes which we know took place but were never reported by the LS to SAC's records office.

Lennart K. Persson estimates that SAC alone during its first decades fought between a third and a half of all the conflicts at that time.

The register method

Parallel to conventional strike and blockade actions a special syndicalist fighting method was developed which is presumed to have been invented by railway navvies and systematised by one of SAC's organisational or general secretaries Rudolf Holmö. The method was called the register.

In actual fact it was a multi-faceted system which, to work effectively, needed a special committee which had the job of pricing different moments of work according to a so called register price-table. The activity of the register committees was often so extensive that it overshadowed the other activities and duties of the LS.

The basic principle was to set a minimum acceptable wage for a given piece of work which no one was to go below. If by chance an employer offered less then a blockade was declared. There never was a question of collective agreements or negotiations but only ultimatums from the register committee. The problem with LO affiliated members and sunorganised labour "resolved itself" by persuasion or at worst by tougher methods (the argument of the fist).

But no matter what method was used to maintain respect for the register price-table it was necessary to have at least half of the local labour force with leanings towards SAC. Naturally this was not always the case.

The register worked best in forestry and among the urban landscape workers (roads, paths, pipe- and cable-layers etc.) in Stockholm. The method survived in forestry well into the fifties. It was particularly effective: the average hourly wage in areas which used SAC's register was generally thirty to forty percent higher than that in areas with LO negotiated wages. It was no wonder that the employers signed collective agreements with LO as soon as they had a chance.

SAC as a barometer for the state of the economy

As seen SAC was during the first decades a decidedly combative movement. People joined and left the organisation according to their convictions that it was necessary to wage a bitter struggle to improve living conditions. When things went well with more prosperity in the economy people left SAC, when things got tough they joined.

Even though SAC had an intensive information service and studies it still wasn't enough to raise membership where it could be said that more than 10,000 were theoretically knowledgeable and conscious syndicalists. The others mostly saw the organisation only as a tool to raise their own very modest standard of living.

Until 1958 SAC's membership figures were directly related to the general economic conditions. The general improvement in the economy in 1921 led to a loss in membership of 4,000 for SAC. A new crisis raised recruiting levels up to a figure of 37,000 in 1924 (SAC's highest ever). A stabilised economy led to a decline to 29,000 in 1929.

Capitalism's worst crisis began with the Wall street stock exchange crash which had repercussions the world over. Mass unemployment and the drop in nominal wages severely squeezed the working class, and in 1933 membership rose to 36,000.

But more went on in SAC than the rise and fall of membership figures. The organisational structure was continually extended so much so that with justification it can be called an overorganising, and a couple of daily newspapers were started. Seemingly great plans revolved that were never fulfilled. SAC never managed to seriously threaten LO's hegemony within the labour movement.

Revolution and evolution

It was only in the beginning of the 1920s that a specific Swedish syndicalistic revolutionary concept began to take form, which can also be seen in the declaration of principles in 1922.

The concepts of revolution and evolution were used side by side in a fashion that must have seemed confusing to those who are used to regarding both as being absolute opposites.

For syndicalists however there never was any real contradiction. They visualised that waged workers would tenaciously and resolutely carve out for themselves larger and larger shares of the real power in the work-place.

The idea of self-management would already sneak-start before the revolution by taking over the organisation and planning of work by the workers' collective itself, the company's owners reduced to being more or less impotent spectators. The idea being that the working class should be successively schooled into the future role as the managers of production.

Through this "aristocrasising of the masses" it would not be possible for an energetic minority to install itself in power after a revolution.

If the workers themselves, skilfully and methodically, took over both the means of production as well as its management under collective forms then such a minority (for example in the form of a communist party) simply couldn't motivate its claims for seizing power.

There shouldn't be any doubt that the negative experiences of the Russian revolutions' chaotic effect on the sphere of production had a strong influence on the syndicalist theoreticians.

The revolution itself, finally, would not be organised as an armed revolt but take the form of a total general strike, encompassing an absolute majority of the workers. The bourgeoisie class, its administrators and its instruments of repression (police and military) would be paralysed by the ceasing of all forms of communication.

In the light of the present day it would seem that the 1920 syndicalists were touchingly naive. A serious miscalculation of the opponents' power of initiative and its ability to quickly break up any movement that threatened its possession of power at an early stage of the process.

Although in reality the architects behind the scenario of the general strike just about believed their own slogans. As with the case of the transition programme of Trotskyism it seems that the idea of the total general strike plays the role of a "necessary" myth which would start the revolutionary process

The syndicalist international

The Swedish communist party (founded in 1917 under the name Left Socialists) on the other hand didn't mince words on the necessity of violence in the revolutionary process. The Russian revolution followed by a four year civil war verified this.

Initially the SAC was exuberantly positive about the Russian revolution which was seen as a genuine popular revolt against autocracy. But as the Bolshevik party under Lenin's leadership outmanoeuvred all the other political groupings and put the bridle on the workers' own organisation (factory committees and workers councils) the gap between syndicalists and communists widened.

The antagonistic differences led to a split in the communist international (Comintern) and SAC participated in the founding of a new international, IWA (IAA in Swedish) together with other organisations similar to SAC from 13 other countries.

At the start IWA organised about a million workers and other wage-slaves. The, mainly North American, IWW which claimed to be an international organisation in itself chose to remain outside.

It wasn't only in the field of foreign policy that antagonism to the communists was seen but also in the Swedish arena, the SAC and Left Socialists (later to be renamed Sweden's Communist Party,) had conflicting union strategies. The communist line was to strengthen the opposition line in the LO and to bind it closer to its own party. The inventiveness and initiative shown by the SAC in developing new forms of action and organisation to further the cause of wage-slaves, was completely missing in the SKP's union policy.

Syndicalist Labour Federation

Opposition to SKP wasn't the only problem SAC had to deal with. During the 1920s an opposition movement arose and grew within the SAC itself. The Districts in the south and south-west had started to co-operate closely with common agitation and suchlike and increasingly began to oppose the main organisation, SAC.

The driving personality behind this was a certain P.J. Wellinder, a Swedish-American who had returned home and who was formerly active in the IWW. Things came to a head and in 1929 a split was inevitable. Wellinder took with him some thousands of members, mainly in Scania and the west-coast and started a new head organisation for the LS, called Syndicalist Labour Federation (curiously the abbreviation SAF is the same as the employers' confederation) and started its own paper in Gothenburg - Workers Courier.

SAF's speciality was not only refusing to sign collective bargaining agreements (SAC was more flexible on that point though preferring the register) but the even refusing to establish strike funds, they were regarded as "lazying and dulling the worker."

Strikes were to be short and powerfully effective, if necessary with elements of sabotage, they regarded long strikes as arduous and exhaustive. SAC's ideas of raising the general level of workers education and consciousness were almost completely alien to the SAF.

SAF finally became an historical parenthesis. Some years into the 1930s Wellinder died of TBC and the slow improvement in the economy after 1935 and the spread of the spirit of "folkhem," (the idea that society is the larger home of the people), brought about a diminishing response to SAF's ideas. In 1938 they rejoined SAC. At this stage they were no more than a few hundred faithful. Where the other original few thousand adherents went is wrapped in obscurity.

SAC was also hit by the spirit of the "folkhem" and the general improvement in the economy. There is however yet another reason for the drop in SAC's membership.

Around 1933-34 the LO tried a new tactic to rid itself of a troublesome competitor. They began to sign so called monopoly agreements where the employers bound themselves to employ no other labour than LO members.

Defiant employers were put under blockade. SAC had to swallow its pride and gradually began to sign agreements covering a period of time in areas where they still dominated the labour force, these areas at the same time dwindled in the face of the hardened resistance from both the LO and employers. SAC special militant tactics, the register, and the "lightning" strike were marginalised as LO's collective bargaining agreements became widespread.

Producer co-operatives

Another method for syndicalists to circumvent the monopoly agreements (and at the same time secure a job and income during the 30s mass unemployment era) consisted of opening its own company in the form of a producer co-operative.

Usually it was a construction business which was exposed to the competitiveness of the market and privately owned companies. The stagnant economy and a chronic shortness of capital meant bankruptcy for the majority of these ventures even if the average earnings were up to 40 per cent lower than the average for building workers.

Gradually it dawned on the SAC that some of its members were involved in wage dumping. The co-operatives low labour costs caused the general wage levels to be lowered. This fact led to the co-operatives becoming a heavy ideological burden for SAC and caused inflamed debates in the congresses at the end of the 30s.

The internal ideological discussions on the justification and legitimacy of co-operatives died out as most went bankrupt (often helped by LO's blockades) but all the same it left deep wounds in the organisation.

The struggle against the unemployment commissions, AK.

But SAC could feel prouder of its efforts to break the AK system. This was the unemployment commissions operations with emergency "jobs" during the worst years of the economic depression.

It was not the fact that the state tried to ensure jobs for the unemployed; but the fact that the wages were so low that the workers could barely survive. On top of this was another serious cause for criticism.

The authorities had discovered an excellent way of getting work done at a price far below than if they used regular labour at regular wages.

The result of this was that loss of jobs for construction and landscape workers caused a rise in unemployment. It was like throwing oil instead of water on the fire. Instead of solving the problem they worsened the situation that they were supposed to improve.

Furthermore the AK was used as a instrument of political oppression against "troublesome" workers. Impertinent and stroppy syndicalists, communists and radical social democrats were sent to AK jobs up and down the country, in some cases over a thousand kilometres distant, while meek and mild "grey sossor," (slang for social democrats), with cap in hand would be given a job in their own locality.

Those who refused the allotted job were denied benefit and had to manage on their own or simply were forced to become tramps.

SAC's fight against the AK took both the form of moulding public opinion at mass meetings and by direct action and struggle. The most famous conflict was the blockade on the railway construction between Jönköping and Ulricehamn, popularly known as starvation line. After a failed attempt to involve LO's Road and Water Workers Union the SAC started the actions alone.

In spite of all the disturbance (it is said that the work lay still for half the constructing period) AK managed with the help of those willing to work to get the line laid and opened in 1929. It later became known as the most unprofitable stretch of line in the railway companies history. (Which shows how unproductive many of AK's projects were.) In the end the parliament declared that regular wages were to paid and AK-projects were ended.

A time for review and reconsideration

By 1935 SAC had existed for a quarter of a century and by this time it was not possible to motivate its continued existence solely with fight, fight and more fight. On top of that the social circumstances had by and large changed.

During the latter half of the 30s SAC was drawn increasingly into solidarity work and general ideological struggle against totalitarian ideologies, both fascism and Stalinism. ( SAC's paper, The Worker, managed to be summoned before the courts for "insulting a foreign statesman" alluding to an article where Herman Göring was described as a drug addict and psychopath.)

Since the founding of the IWA in 1922 the original organisations one by one fell away. USI in Italy was crushed by Mussolini's fascists shortly after. FAUD in Germany succumbed after Hitler's take over in 1933 (when FAUD tried to reform in West Germany after WW2 practically all the original members had been liquidated). FORA in Argentina was forced underground and faded away when the military took over. The French CGT discredited itself already in 1914 when it abandoned its anti-militarist line and instead supported the French state in the war against Germany and split in 1918 the majority becoming an appendage to the French communist party.

It became quite empty around SAC. As matters then stood it is easy to understand that the SAC regarded the struggle against totalitarianism as the decisive issue not only for humanity but also, in a narrower perspective, as a purely defensive measure for protection for what was left of the syndicalist world movement,

The Spanish civil war

The strongest member in the IWA however, namely CNT, remained. When the civil war broke out in Spain in summer of 1936 between the republicans and Franco's fascists, the fascists were beaten back in CNT's strongholds in Catalonia and the neighbouring region of Aragon. At the same time as drawing-up a front against the fascist controlled areas, CNT commenced a social revolution in north eastern Spain. The syndicalists simply took over power in the society, for the first and only time in history.

The events in Spain generated, naturally, a huge enthusiasm in SAC, especially among the youth. On the initiative of Gothenburg's LS a solidarity movement for the republic was started, it was much like the Vietnam movement or even more similar to the Workers Convoy for Bosnia.

Of the approximate 500 Swedes who went to Spain to fight in the international brigades at least one hundred were syndicalists, added to these were a substantial number which directly joined the CNT militia.

Both the fascist and republican sides were composed of relatively mixed constellations with strong internal tensions. In 1937 there was an internal showdown on the republican side. A "civil war within a civil war", with on the one side syndicalists, anarchists and POUM (a small Marxist party) and the other side the Madrid government supported by social democrats, liberals and communists.

The government tried simply to install with the use of violence "normal" bourgeois order in the north-east of Spain, instead of the socialist self-managed social order which the CNT had built up. When the gunsmoke dispersed some thousands of CNT followers lay dead and the organisation didn't have the same total hegemony in the region as before. But the government didn't dare to totally crush the CNT as this would have meant a military collapse in this part of Spain.

However in the longer term the consequences were disastrous, the war went steadily worse for the republicans until the fascist total victory in 1939.

SAC could never forget that the Spanish communists under Moscow's open approval, made common cause with worker hostile elements in an attack on their brother organisations. Relations with the Swedish communists after 1937 were cooler than ever.

Anti-militarism under scrutiny

As a result of the lessons learned from the Spanish civil war and the Finnish winter war in 1939-40, the SAC initiated a review of the organisations traditional anti-militaristic stance.

It was mainly a group within SUF (Syndicalist Youth organisation) which questioned the usefulness of categorically and always rejecting the use of armed resistance. The cause of the shift in opinion which with small but inexorable steps led to taking the side of the bourgeois democracy, no matter how hypocritical and faulty it might be, against totalitarian systems for the defence of democratic rights of freedom and justice, if necessary by force of arms, can be traced back to the debate which the Spanish civil war gave rise to in SAC. This change in opinion led to the writing of SAC's new declaration of principles in 1952.

Against totalitarian tendencies

SAC refused to see any unfathomable difference between fascism as a totalitarian system and the Stalinist police state in soviet Russia.

What is more the syndicalists noted a strange phenomenon (later verified by the historian Helene Lööw) that a "membership exchange," and not only a marginal one, occurred between Lindholm's nazi party and SKP, this naturally kindled the syndicalists convictions that there was a murky common value-system shared by all totalitarian tendencies.

But even if SAC's anti-communism, (or maybe more precisely, anti-Stalinism) became more accentuated in the years before, during and after WW2, it must in all honesty be pointed out that it was a different kind of anti-communism than that preached in the bourgeois press. SAC or its press never tried to cast suspicion by accusing generally progressive individuals or movements of being "crypto-communist," which both then and up to the present day is a notorious term in tabloid newspapers.

But both syndicalists and communists were to be found in the same camp in real struggles in the workplace, that is among the most militant. (During the war they were often literally in the same "camp" behind barbed wire in the work camps set up by Per Albins Hanssons social democratic government to intern "subversive elements.")

The emergency and post war years

The so called state of emergency period 1939-45 severely strained SAC's resources. Young, and even not so young men were called for military service for months or even years, when they weren't "summoned" for internment that is. These conditions disrupted the daily routines and business of the organisation, which to a large extent depended upon unwaged voluntary work.

"The Worker" because of its fearless and nazi-hostile journalism which was seldom appreciated by the authorities could boast of being Sweden's most confiscated paper. This title of honour couldn't replace those drafted activists or the diminished manoeuvrability under the iron fist of the state's wage policy though. All wages were frozen by a government decree. Without the ability to wage a struggle many came to the opinion that a militant organisation was redundant and dropped out of the movement.

"All is lost except our honour" concluded SAC on the years 1939-45. Well, all right, not really all was lost. SAC still had over 20,000 members and its infrastructure intact. There was also the hope that the anti-fascist victory in WW2 would bring a positive climate for a movement that has always held the flag of freedom high.

It got off to bad start. The great metal workers strike in 1945 took place, this was an area where traditionally SAC was weak. It was only in

1949-50 that the syndicalists had a chance to be in the centre of events when the forestry employers went to attack in areas were SAC's register system dominated. (The goal was to reduce wage levels to that of the LO membership.)

As it turned out the syndicalist forestry workers had enough strength to defend the register price table and with the absence of "work-ready" or "scabs" the employers surrendered after a whole winter season with not a single tree logged. But it was to be the register systems last big manifestation.

A number of disheartened dock workers changed to SAC after an unsuccessful strike in 1951 (they were thwarted by their own union, Transport) but generally there was no large group transfers of members to SAC. Sossarna (slang for social democrats) maliciously named SAC as "the traveller to nowhere" and predicted the immanent demise of SAC. Membership figures sank steadily and the membership slowly became predominantly middle aged. Life, for the working class youth which for the first time in history had some money left in their pockets, was all about motorbikes, American films and dancing the jitterbug and not about mossy old pre-war ideologies.

As class struggle in Sweden was no longer fought in violent fashion it was difficult for SAC's special tactics to be viable. SAC concentrated on the battle of ideas and visions as well as the legal struggle against monopoly clauses and other forms of discrimination on the labour market, with, by the way, some success.

Moreover "Arbetaren" came into the spotlight by breaking some taboos and conspiracies of silence in Swedish press. Corrupt legal practices were rife during the first half of the 1950s.

Fundamentalists and New-orienteers

It became patently clear that a union movement cannot in the long run motivate its existence by being seen in the eye of the public as an exposer of corruption and scandal and a litigious actor in the labour courts (Industrial Arbitration Tribunal).

Something had to added and this insight led in a way to a starting point both for those who wanted to "modernise" the organisation and those who wanted to return to the image that the movement had during the fighting years of 1910-1935. The first category, named new-orienteers began to work for the adoption of an unemployment benefit scheme (the purpose being making SAC a more "attractive" union) as well as replacing the "obsolete" declaration of principles from 1922 with a new one which in effect (if at least not in theory) would mean an acceptance of the prevailing order in society.

The other group, we can call them fundamentalists, rallied around the organisational secretary John Anderson and the elderly Rudolf Holmö. They fought just about every effort to reform SAC's style of work and outward image.

That such figures as Andersson and Holmö became central figures in the revolutionary side meant that the battle was lost at the very outset. Because of their general dogmatism, square ways and inflexible manner they managed to repel groups within the SAC that otherwise could have been won over to the radical line. At that time there were some hundreds of activists with roots from P.J. Wellinder's organisation and the Young Socialist movement which since the 20s shifted more and more towards an open anarchistic line. But for Andersson and Holmö the anarchists were the most repulsive in the world second only to the new-orienteers.

Even the well known writer Stig Dagerman and the proletarian author (and ex-Wellinderian) Folke Fridell who by and large agreed with the "fundamentalists" values were repelled by their self-satisfied attitude.

A referendum in 1952 signified a clear mandate for the new declaration of principles, as well as the establishment of an unemployment benefit scheme. A number of "fundamentalists" left the SAC, others were expelled from their LS when they started the oppositional ideological movement The Syndicalists Union. These published a paper for some years during the fifties and then no more was heard of them.

The unemployment benefit scheme (which became a severe strain on the SAC) upset not only the fundamentalists but also IWA who regarded this as collaboration with the state. The result of which led to SAC and IWA going separate ways.

The light at end of the tunnel

By 1958 the negative trend was broken ( the year before SAC was down to 17.000 members, and a rise in membership was noted for the first time in two decades. This continued until 1968.

In SAC's jubilee publication from 1960 the opinion was put forward that the biggest miracle wasn't that a trend was broken in 1958 but the fact that LO hadn't managed to totally wipe out SAC already during the 30s and 40s bearing in mind the LO's closed shop tactics aided by a biased state apparatus.

The drop in membership had been inexorable but in spite of everything not especially drastic. There must have been a rare tough fibre in the core of the membership that were left after the departure of those weaker in character.

Some time into the 1950s LO and SAP in their "zeal for purity" shifted focus from the syndicalists to the communists, who were to be smoked out of the labour movement. The attitude seemed to be that the SAC was going downhill anyway and could be left to die peacefully.

But it was a hasty conclusion, the actual fact that psychological pressure on the workplace had eased off for a few years added to the fact that SAC adopted the features of conventional unions (unemployment benefit scheme, waged union officials, collective insurance etc.) meant that two important barriers against joining SAC disappeared. A third factor which resulted in a little but welcome influx of members was the growing bureaucracy in LO. Small unions were overrun and merged with larger ones. Changes in statutes meant that the LO-district increased its power over departments, small departments were merged to larger ones etc.

Many objected against the decrease in democracy and joined the only alternative union available namely the syndicalist organisation.

Liberal syndicalists

Sometimes we encounter the opinion that during the 50s SAC tried to launch itself as a kind of "liberal union alternative". It is not an accurate description to say that the organisation strove in this direction, but there was a group which manoeuvred towards this end. The most prominent figure was Helmut Rüdiger, originally a political refugee from Germany and for many years a columnist with Arbetaren.

Rüdiger did his utmost to recruit younger writers with liberal leanings to the paper. As a rule they never stayed long but left in the hunt for more lucrative positions. Rüdiger's sudden death in 1966 meant the end of the tendency he represented, especially as his sphere of influence never reached beyond Arbetarens' editorial rooms.

Arbetaren has an independent relation with its owner, that is the SAC, the executive and central committees have no right to involve itself in the running of the papers daily political editing.

SAC and the "new left"

During the 1960s there appeared a few small syndicalist groups in universities linked to the magazines Zenith and the Libertarian Socialist Journal (FST). (Zenith gradually adopted a Marxist-Leninist stance.)

Generally however there was never an academic syndicalism in existence. The so called student revolt had hardly any effect on SAC.

When the Maoists and trotskyists could gather thousands of supporters, usually with a high-school or university background, the SAC recruited at most one hundred from among the radicalised youth.

But "new-radicalism" did, in all truth, have an effect on SAC. As the general social climate became more radical some of this rubbed off on SAC. It began to rediscover its revolutionary roots.

This resurrected radicalism led to the revision of a new declaration of principles which were adopted in the middle of the 70s with an 80% majority in the referendum. It is worth noting that the new wording was accepted by those from the radical Syndicalists Union.

Fundamental changes in the SAC

Ideological waves and trends de facto have had a lot less effect on SAC's organisational development than social and demographically processes in society. The depopulation in rural areas hit SAC hard because for half a century SAC was "overrepresented" amongst forestry workers.

As the removal trucks rolled south many syndicalist forest and timber workers followed in their wake. In the new urban environment, living and working conditions were different and syndicalism was a relatively unknown phenomenon. Only the most stubborn kept their membership after moving out.

A drop in employment in SAC's three main branches, forestry, construction and mining had the same effect. SAC simply didn't manage to recruit new members, during the sweeping structural rationalisation changes during the 70s and 80s, in previously uncanvassed branches at the same rate as the old branches diminished. For example the number of forestry workers was reduced by 80% between 1975 and 1990.

SAC currently organises waged workers in the public sector, printing, food processing and service industries, as well as other sectors which were previously badly represented. This spread in the members occupational base is naturally a proper and necessary development.

The women's inmarch

In 1995 eighty five years after its foundation the SAC has about 40% women in its ranks, 9 of 16 members in the Central committee, half the members in the executive committee and the majority in the committees in the two largest LS are women.

Our thoughts naturally go back to the photograph taken at our founding congress in 1910 where there is only one woman to be seen among the delegates. Yet sixty years on the picture hadn't improved noticeably, even if we can point out singularly prominent women figures in the movement such as Elise Ottesen-Jensen, Hilma Hofstedt, Moa Martinsson and Britta Gröndal.

The "female revolution" in the SAC first came towards the end of the 70s, partly as a side effect of the increasing inflow from the public sector and partly because many radical women discovered syndicalism for the first time.

Why then did it take so long for SAC to achieve a more reasonable balance of sexes? First and foremost it is due to the fact that SAC was never in the position to pick and choose its membership but had to be content with the members it could get. This is the predicament of all minority organisations. These become strongly overrepresented in certain groups and almost without a foothold in others. As a consequence it not only had very few women members but was also poorly represented amongst the key groups in the working class, e.g. metal and railway workers.

Strictly speaking this went against the basic tenet of syndicalism that the movement should first and foremost organise the proletariat in its entirety (One Big Union, as expressed by the IWW). If this wasn't possible then it the movement should at least try to mirror the working class in all its complexity (the most aware in all branches and categories). Of course this compound picture shows that an important part of the working class then, as now, is made up of women.

"To mirror the class in all is complexity"- on this point SAC failed miserably. Both branchwise, regionally and in regard to gender. It is only during the 90s that there is some basis for regarding SAC as an organisation with a foothold in all areas of the country, in all branches and both sexes.


Syndicalism's foremost field of activity as a class struggle doctrine is in the sphere of production. But life is not only made up of production and economics. The barbaric forms of capitalist expression are infinite and open class oppression is just one of many.

Twice this century tens of millions have paid the cost of the capitalist wars of redistribution with their lives. If we are to believe contemporary historians the political situation since 1945 was so critical that the risk for total nuclear war was immanent on two or three occasions.

But the threat of war is not enough. Widespread environmental destruction and an accelerated plunder of natural resources threatens to undermine the very basis for mankind's continued existence. This does not mean, however, that "we're all in the same boat," that we share identical interests. On the contrary, it means that the mission of the proletariat, to seize power world-wide and mould life in society in a socialist direction, assumes an even greater dignity and importance.

It is not just a question of the working class and its interests but the interests of the whole of humanity. The present ruling classes have forfeited their authority. We must take it from them, with all the power and resolution that the situation demands. The responsibility lies upon the working classes themselves. Do we have an alternative?

Translated by Kieran Casey : SAC International secretary (1994-1998)

Taken from Anarcho-Syndicalism 101. (Dated September 3, 2005)