Syndicalism - Hubert Lagardelle

An introduction to the principles of revolutionary syndicalism. Lagardelle was a member of Jules Guesde's Parti Ouvrier Francaise (Marxiste), broke with socialist politics entirely, and later became Minister of Labour for the Vichy regime, so this document is provided for historical purposes only.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on September 14, 2011

Syndicalism – Hubert Lagardelle

The general characteristics of syndicalism

Syndicalism is the theory that recognizes the role that the workers occupational organizations, when animated by a revolutionary spirit, can play with respect to social transformation. It is a workers’ socialism. By virtue of its concept of the class struggle it is opposed to pure corporativism, whose most perfect model is English trade unionism; by the preponderant role it grants to proletarian institutions, it is distinguished from parliamentary socialism; and by its interest in positive creation and its contempt for ideology, it is differentiated from traditional anarchism.

It has all too often been confused with one or another of these three concepts, so that, in order to properly understand its character, it is necessary to precisely explain how it differs from them. By knowing what it is not, we shall better understand what it is.

Corporativism, parliamentary socialism and anarchism

Corporativism and syndicalism have common foundations; that is, both are composed of occupational groupings. But corporativism does not aspire to change the world. It simply desires to improve the conditions of the workers that it organizes, and seeks to provide them with a comfortable situation in society as it exists. It is neither more nor less than one of the many interest groups that swarm all around us. Just as the capitalists associate in order to multiply their capital, so the workers combine their forces to achieve immediate benefits.

Syndicalism accuses corporativism of thus accentuating corporative egoism. By transforming the Syndicates into Business Agencies, by having no goals other than material concerns, and by setting them on the road of purely commercial undertakings, they only nourish in them a concern for their particular interests, to the detriment of the general interests of all. The proletariat is thus divided against itself into an infinite multitude of disparate groups, which separately pursue their particular demands. No common struggle unites them, no internal bond holds them together, no great political idea inspires them.

Not only does corporativism raise this Chinese Wall between occupational groups, but it also pits the organized against the masses of unorganized workers. It constitutes an extremely harsh aristocracy of labor. These powerful labor organizations, with their short working days and overflowing strike funds, form a gang of profiteers, jealous of their privileges and indifferent to the misery of their neighbors, who have nothing but contempt for outsiders and are only concerned with their own prerogatives. They are hardly concerned with the battles that, below them or alongside them, are fought by other less favored workers: business is business.

Corporativism, in the eyes of syndicalism, by virtue of these characteristics binds the economically higher ranks of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. A shared bourgeois ideal of life is what impels both these workers as well as the capitalists to obtain advantages by way of the same procedures. The big trade unions, organized according to the corporativist model, can in no way be distinguished from the great employers associations; in both there is the same centralization, the same practice of compromise, the same exclusive preoccupation with financial power. This is natural. Executive authority, indispensable for the smooth running of business deals, is just as applicable to a workers’ business as it is to a bourgeois business. Conflicts between wage earners and capitalists, from the moment that they are reduced to mere disputes between sellers of commodities, can have no other outcome than alliances analogous to those undertaken in commercial transactions. Ultimately, since they accept the principle that money runs the world, the trade unions are logically transformed into savings banks and insurance funds for the proletariat, which accumulate capital in order to make a profit and to manage risks.

Such methods never cease to provide benefits for the positivist spirits who know how to avail themselves of them. It is true that the material successes achieved by corporative practice can sometimes be as impressive as the results of a well-conducted business deal. But they have nothing new to offer with respect to the future of society and have little value for culture. Is it not a characteristic trait of all men and of all groups of men, educated in the school of capitalism, to subordinate everything to the conquest of immediate advantages? And is it not precisely because today’s society values all things according to their commercial values that syndicalist socialism fights against it?

Parliamentary socialism and syndicalism theoretically pursue the same end: the socialization of the means of production and exchange. But syndicalism accuses socialism of being based on an economic fatalism that leads to statism and democratic corruption.

The representatives of parliamentary socialism, in a caricature of the classical observations of the process of capitalism systematized by Marx, have viewed economic development as the mysterious agent of social transformation. The concentration of industry, the centralization of capital, the attrition of the middle classes, the growth of the proletariat, have until recently seemed to be enough to impose socialism as an iron necessity. It was supposed that capitalism would automatically engender collectivism, and the social question became a question of numbers. As for the historical maturity of the proletariat, its ability to replace the bourgeoisie, or its acquisition of political capacity, nobody spoke of these things. The will of the workers disappeared before economic fatalism.

This economic fatalism is accompanied by a political fatalism. The parliamentary socialists believe that the only thing that is necessary in order to change the world is to take control of the State. A simple decree on the part of the political authority, the work of capitalist development is sanctioned, and thus the new society is mechanically created. Both forms of parliamentary socialism—reformist and revolutionary—share this governmental optimism that reduces everything to a simple change of political personnel. Both have the same faith in the magical virtue of power. They are only distinguished by the way they intend to conquer the State. The reformists aspire to take possession of it gradually, in collaboration with the other parties, until the moment when, having obtained a parliamentary majority, they take over the whole structure. The revolutionaries want to take it over all at once, by force and dictatorial methods. But neither seems to understand that the possession of the State by socialist politicians cannot advance matters even one inch. The feelings and the aptitudes of men are not transformed by an order dictated by Power, and the legislative mechanism cannot compensate for a defective reality. The State, a dead institution that lies outside of society, produces nothing: only life is creative.

This error of parliamentary socialism, according to syndicalism, stems from its belief that the parties are the political expressions of the classes. But while the classes are the natural products of the economy and of history, the parties are only artificial creations of political society. Their rivalries and intrigues do not affect the real basis of the social world. There is no relation between the rise to Power of socialist politicians and the progress of the working class. The participation in the government by socialist deputies, such as Millerand, Briand and Viviani, has not changed the nature of the State, has not modified the relations between the classes, nor has it given the proletariat the training that it needs. And what is true of the fragmentary conquest of the State by a handful of socialists is equally true with respect to its complete conquest by the whole socialist party. When Augustus drank, maybe Poland got drunk; but even if a few socialists become ministers or if a few ministers become socialists, the workers will still be workers.

The danger posed by such tactics is very serious: by thus concentrating all the hopes of the proletariat in the miraculous intervention of Power, by telling them that they can expect their liberation by means of an external force, parliamentary socialism has paralyzed in the proletariat all personal effort and has led it away from positive work. Even worse: by demanding the unlimited extension of State functions, it has become confused with vulgar statism, the most depressing of social concepts.

The cause of this is the imitation of the procedures of democracy, practiced by parliamentary socialism. Syndicalism does not believe that democracy is capable of producing new values; in its judgment, it is a regime that, rather than exalting, demoralizes the human personality. This is not meant to imply that democracy is not superior to the regimes that preceded it; insofar as it has realized political freedom and allows the exercise of free expression, it presents a negative side that makes it an indisputable factor for progress. By virtue of its positive side, however, by its mode of functioning, it cannot engender anything great.

What are the foundations of democracy? The individual and the State, which is the product of the individual wills. Rousseau has explained what kind of fiction such a regime is based upon. Political society takes into consideration not the real men of practical life—workers, capitalists, landowners, etc.—but a type of abstract man, stripped of all concrete qualities, who is the same at every level of social life: the citizen. Thanks to this artifice, it can be believed that all men have equal rights, despite their social situation, that they are identical values that only have to be added together and whose law is dictated to them by the greatest number.

Upon this dust-heap of men, the State establishes its dictatorship. Separations are only made for the purpose of its rule. However rare the paradox, it justifies itself by the disorganization that it has itself created. Can there be any doubt that the citizen who has been stripped of everything can do nothing for himself? He is a monarch, undoubtedly, but a weak monarch. Relegated to his isolation, his weakness legitimizes power. The function of the State consists precisely in conferring order upon this chaos of individuals: there is only authority at the top, because there is anarchy at the bottom.

But there is an abyss that stands between the individual and the State that prevents them from communicating directly. They need intermediaries: these intermediaries are called parties. Their role consists in ascertaining and expressing the will of the people. They replace the citizen, they act on his behalf, they are his representatives. Such is the principle of democracy; the citizen is an extra in a play that others direct for him. He cannot exercise his power except by delegation and his mandates constitute so many acts of abdication.

Syndicalism denounces this principle of democracy as being corruptive of the human personality. The representative mechanism assumes, by definition, that the citizen is powerless. He is powerless because he is incompetent. And he is incompetent because he is an abstract person, separated from the real conditions of life, and has to express an opinion, not concerning the problems that touch upon his experience and form the raw material of his existence, but concerning that mass of vague questions, which are designated under the rubric of the general interest, of which he is ignorant. He therefore needs to be replaced by a competent mandatory and, yet another paradox, he himself, who is the incompetent in question, is supposed to encompass his own competence.

Once such a choice has been made, he remains inert. He has delegated his power: now all he needs to do is wait. It is a compulsory laziness. This weak monarch is, at the same time, a lazy monarch. No feeling of responsibility, no notion of effort, no appeal to the vibrant forces of the individual! None or almost none: the simple gesture of the voter, once every four years. An inertia that is aggravated by demoralization. What else could emerge from the haggling, the trickery and the duplicities of vulgar politics, but a horrible debasement of character? The rivalries of the parties are nothing but unbridled competitions among the various constituencies greedy for the sinecures and patronage jobs that the possession of the State offers.

Debasement and mediocrity, such is the lot of the democracies. Let us also add: credulity and mistrust. How could it be otherwise? Must the voter not have faith in his chosen candidate? He chose him on the basis of his promises and his assumed aptitude to fulfill them. Hasn’t everything been said already about the cult of the individual that such a regime engenders? On the other hand, the citizen is, generally, so disappointed by the people he put his trust in and elected that he is disillusioned and immediately afterward regrets his choice. Thus, by virtue of the vagaries of the elections, the fortunes of the various parties wax and wane in alternation. The voter, choosing one party or the other out of caprice or disorientation, indignant at the betrayal of the party he previously voted for, and seduced by another party’s false promises, seems like a lamentable slave of all of them and is the eternal pawn of their maneuvers.

Parliamentary socialism was not the alchemist that was capable of transforming base lead into pure gold. Its democratic tactics undermined its revolutionary claims. It was a party just like the other parties, neither better nor worse. This is not to say that syndicalism disregards its proper, specific role. Syndicalism does not reject parties: it only denies their suitability for the job of transforming the world.

The theoreticians of anarchism have recently been directing a great deal of criticism against syndicalism. I am not referring here to individualist anarchists, whose principles are a priori antithetical to syndicalist premises, but to communist anarchists, whose critique of the State has often been compared to the anti-statism of the workers movement.

Anarchism accuses syndicalism of being too pragmatic and anti-intellectual. Syndicalism was born from the experience of the workers rather than from theories. This is why it shows so much contempt for dogmas and formulas. Its methods are more realistic. It starts from the most humble economic preoccupations so as to gradually rise to more elevated general ideas. It first conduces the workers to defend their own immediate interests in order to later enable them to derive from their own activity a broader idea of the big picture. The least of their conceptions sink their roots into the depths of life. Theory is derived from practice.

For anarchism, on the other hand, it is the idea that engenders action. It relegates the economy to a secondary position, so as to put ideology first. It does not admit that syndicalism is enough in and of itself: the syndical milieu does not seem of any use except as a favorable terrain for the propaganda of ideas. And only if these ideas are imported from outside the syndical organizations, does anarchism concede to them any revolutionary value. Anarchism seeks nothing less than syndicalism’s subordination.

Anarchism also rejects the notion of class and class struggle, which are basic syndicalist concepts. It directs its message not at the workers, but to all men. It is not a movement of the working class: it is a movement of all of humanity. Since in its view ideas rule the world, all men are equally susceptible to being convinced by its message. No social class is privileged with a revolutionary vocation. This explains why the anarchists have devoted themselves with such zeal to ideological culture and bookish education. Scientific superstition, the adoration of the written word, and intellectualism in all its forms have never had more fanatic devotees.

The abstract negation of the State that they have so often formulated is only negatively related to working class anti-statism. Against the State, whose defects they have so mercilessly analyzed, they have only opposed the individual, following Spencer. Syndicalism, on the other hand, marshals concrete institutions against the State. And it expects to gradually dismantle its empire, because it will gradually take over its functions.

The two conceptions also differ with respect to parliamentarism. Anarchism is antiparliamentary, it directs its message at the citizen, it tells him not to vote, and that he should not take an interest in the machinery of the State. Syndicalism is extra-parliamentary: it disregards the citizen; it knows only the producer. But while the realization of its own mission does not require the use of parliamentary methods, it nonetheless leaves the members of the syndicates free to use the political parties external to the syndicates for other purposes. It does not bind them to any dogma.

Anarchism and syndicalism are therefore not at all similar. There is, of course, a new tendency that, going by the name of working class anarchism, seeks to associate itself with syndicalism. In reality, however, it turns its back on traditional anarchist theories, and official anarchism fights against it, considering it a deviation.

The socialism of institutions

Neither corporativism, nor parliamentary socialism, nor anarchism. What, then, is syndicalism? I have referred to it as working class socialism. But it would be more precise to call it a socialism of institutions. What does this mean?

Syndicalism is based on this postulate: the social classes are differentiated by their institutions and their juridical, political and moral conceptions. Each class creates, with relation to its economic structure, its own organs of struggle, thus affirming its particular notion of legal right. And since the classes are thus opposed to one another, not only due to their modes of existence, but also and primarily by their modes of thinking, they appear to the social observer as so many distinct blocs. Their struggles constitute the stuff of history. The objective of each consists in imposing on society its own idea and the institutions upon which it is based. The class struggle, in the final accounting, is nothing but a struggle for a notion of legal right or a principle.

Thus, as I must note below with regard to Marx, all class struggles can be reduced to a dual movement of negation and construction. The movement of negation is exercised through new ideas and institutions. There have really only been two classes that clash on the battlefield of history: the class that represents the reigning order and the class that fights for an opposed order. The other classes are relegated to a secondary position; they intervene to one degree or another in the general conflict, but cannot imprint their stamp on the historical movement.

The bourgeoisie and the proletariat represent the modern social drama. The working class is today the revolutionary class, as the bourgeoisie was the revolutionary class in its struggle in the old regime against feudalism. And it is the only revolutionary class, because of all the exploited classes it is the only one whose liberation is incompatible with the principles of capitalism, property and the State, and this is because it stands outside property and the State.

Syndicalism’s mission consists precisely in organizing the workers for the victory of the new ideal that they bear within themselves. What is this new ideal? It is the right of labor to organize freely. The producers want to free the workshop of all external tutelage and replace the discipline imposed by the employer with the voluntary discipline of the associated workers. The very least that must be done—so they hold—is that the act of production, which is the highest manifestation of man, since it affirms his creative power, should cease to be turned away from its natural destiny, which consists in the emancipation of the individual, and should cease to be the scene of every kind of servitude and parasitism. They add that society is made in the image of the workshop, and that if in the modern world freedom is subjugated, this is because labor is enslaved. The very same principle of authority is the basis of both the employing class and the State.

This new idea of free labor in a free society can only take shape in the form of the trade union type of association. The Syndicate is the extension of the workshop: it associates the producers on the terrain of production itself. It organizes their struggles and responds to the primordial concerns of their lives. Thus, by overcoming the narrow point of view of particular demands, we conceive it to be directed not just against this or that particular employer, but against the entire employing class; it thereby acquires an immense political importance and becomes a revolutionary institution. In this way, the Syndicates, inspired by a great social ideal, play the same role in the emancipation of the proletariat, as Marx said, that the municipalities played in the emancipation of the bourgeoisie.

The syndicalists, for whom ideas are determined by facts, thus discover in even the most insignificant workers struggle the seed of the class struggle. Or to put it another way, the class struggle is nothing but the generalization of these minor everyday exploits, which are thus considered as skirmishes in a wider war. Let us sketch the growth of the class struggle. At first, the revolt begins with sudden and chaotic outbursts on the part of the producers. The first strikes are nothing but the initial sparks of a vague class instinct born from desperation. They nonetheless have the effect of revealing to the workers their collective existence. The workers do not know each other. But through the external discipline imposed by the employing class, their cohesion is maintained. That which is achieved by the employer’s authority in the workshop, is achieved through repeated strikes by way of internal unity; the feeling of solidarity develops. Sporadic revolt, in the form of temporary associations, gives way to permanent revolt in the form of the Syndicate.

The more intense the economic struggle, the more refined it becomes. The strike ceases to be an isolated act of particular workers’ groups and becomes an act of the class. The Syndicate has the goal of not only obtaining material advantages, but also of destroying the right of the employer to intervene in the labor process. In this manner the idea of the freedom of labor gradually grows and is imposed on all the workers who take part in the struggle.

The same phenomenon arises with respect to resistance to the authority of the State. Opposition to the State begins with the presence of government forces in conflicts between workers and capitalists. At first this opposition is limited to the personnel who compose these forces, with whom the workers directly clash. But this opposition is gradually extended to the whole government mechanism, and the State is henceforth no longer viewed by the workers as a benefactor, but as a tyrant. The Syndicate, just as it seeks to displace the employer from his functions within the workshop, also acquires the purpose of depriving the State of its functions within Society. It aspires to deprive it of all its powers, which it has monopolized in an abusive fashion, with respect to the world of labor, so as to appropriate them to itself alone, to which it has the right.

The final act of this struggle is a formidable general strike declared by the producers, who have attained such a degree of organization and ability that they can assure the functioning of the workshop. It is therefore not a question of an illusory intervention by the State, but of the final stage of a process of creative evolution. Nor does this imply that the possibility is entertained of a social transformation that will take place by way of a leap into the darkness, but rather by way of a solidly constructed economic bridge.

All these tactics composed of personal efforts, endlessly rejuvenated, are what constitute direct action. There is no delegation or representation, but a constant appeal to the ideas of responsibility, dignity and energy. No compromises, no special arrangements, but rather the struggle with its risks and its exalting emotions. No flattery of the base instincts of passivity, but rather a continuous exaltation of man’s most active feelings.

But there is more. Syndicalism not only opposes its direct action to the indirect action of democracy, but also opposes its free organization to the authoritarian organization of the latter. Instead of reproducing the hierarchical forms of political society, it is built on the foundations of federalism, decentralization and autonomy: the free Syndicate in the Federation and the free Federation in the Confederation. This is a program that has no similarities to the centralist methods of government operations. It involves the habituation of the masses to dispense with leaders and to participate in the practical organization of freedom.

Finally, between the working class masses and the Syndicate there is not that solution of continuity that opens up an abyss between the masses of voters and their political representatives. The organized and unorganized workers are mixed together in the workshop and everyday life; they can only be distinguished by their degree of combativity. The struggle is how you can tell them apart. The most courageous take the lead, and expose themselves to danger, in order to defend not their own personal interests, but the interests of all. The force of the revolutionary syndicates is therefore derived only from the moral qualities of their members. They cannot promise their followers, as the parties do, positions and sinecures in the Government that they are trying to conquer. But the masses, who see them go into action, follow them instinctively. And these working class masses, unlike the mass of voters, are capable of judgment. The questions addressed by the Syndicates are the same ones that affect their everyday lives, and they are fully capable of speaking of them. They are, undoubtedly, like all masses, heavy and awkward; but when the Syndicates, which comprise the conscious minorities, approach them during a crucial moment, they are always ready to respond to their call. Experience teaches them that strikes, for example, set all the workers in motion as one man, regardless of their religion or their political beliefs. Like the ripples produced by a stone tossed into the water, each blow delivered by the working class has its effect, by molecular action, on the masses of the proletarians.

So everything about syndicalism is new: its ideas and its organization. It is the bold movement of a young aggressive class, which relies on itself for everything, which affirms itself by way of unprecedented creations and which brings to the world, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, a revaluation of values.

Syndicalism and Marxism

It has often been said that Marxism is conducive to an economic and political fatalism, and it has been censured for this. This criticism would be just if it could be demonstrated that Marx was responsible for the deformations of his thought. But he was himself quite careful to ask that he should be judged only according to his own doctrines, professing in advance that he was not a Marxist: “I am not a Marxist”.

In reality, the Marxism of Marx is by no means a sterile system; it is a theory of action and a philosophy of practice. Marx did not say that economic development would automatically transform the world. He never presented the concentration of industry and capital as the sufficient and mysterious agents of socialism. But he did show in what conditions the advance of capitalism could be utilized by the class, within the process of social renovation, if it wanted to act on the terrain of the class struggle.

Nor did the seizure of political power by the proletariat mean for him the conquest of the State and its public powers in the traditional way, so as to decree in an authoritarian manner the socialist regime. Marx showed that the working class cannot make its revolution unless it wages a political struggle, that is, a universal struggle, and unless it possesses political power in the appropriate form, that is, the capacity to make its will operative over the whole society.

It is clearly the case that Marx did not describe the concrete forms of the class struggle in the same depth that he analyzed the aspects of capitalism. This is consonant with the fact that he did not have a revolutionary workers movement before his eyes, whereas he was able to observe the movement of the economy in its full development. But his work is full of indications, which we can use, now that we know, as a result of the French experience, what the working class, organized in a revolutionary way, understands by class struggle.

We would like to draw the attention of the reader to these indications. The few relevant texts that we shall submit for the reader’s consideration, will provide information concerning the most original aspects of Marxist thought, and will do so more effectively than long dissertations.

These texts refer to ideas of three kinds:

1. The primacy of working class institutions;

2. Anti-statism and its corollary, anti-patriotism, and

3. The evolution of the revolutionary process.

Working class institutions

Social classes, according to Marx, can be distinguished by their institutions and their ideologies. Each class creates its own institutions, through which it asserts its juridical, moral and political conceptions. These institutions are its personal creations, and it puts into them all that it has that is new within itself, that is, the rules of life that are opposed to the rules of life of the institutions of its rival classes.

This notion of a separation between the major social groups, which thus juxtaposes them to one another as closed and impenetrable worlds, reduces the class struggle to a dual movement of negation and construction. The negation destroys the institutions of the ruling class; the construction builds the institutions of the rising class.

In order to emancipate itself, the working class therefore cannot take its organization and its ideology from the bourgeoisie, just as the bourgeoisie did not take its organization and ideology from feudalism. It needs to create its own special political institutions, thanks to which it will someday realize its ideal of a workplace without employers and a society without a State.

Marx pointed out, in The Poverty of Philosophy, how the trade union organs of the working class are transformed into political institutions.

“The first attempt of workers to associate among themselves always takes place in the form of combinations” [in the incorrect French of The Poverty of Philosophy, the word combinations means trade unions—author’s note].

“Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination. Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist. If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favor of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favor of wages. In this struggle – a veritable civil war – all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character.”

But it is in the resolution on the trade unions, written by him and approved by the first Congress of the International held at Geneva in 1866, where Marx most clearly set forth his conception. He compares the role of the trade unions in the emancipation of the proletariat with that of the Municipalities in the emancipation of the bourgeoisie:

“. . . unconsciously to themselves, the Trades' Unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class, as the mediaeval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the Trades' Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.”

The revolutionary function of the Trade Unions is therefore of the highest importance for Marx; they are the organized vehicles for the suppression of wage labor and the rule of capital.

Insofar as he refers to the other working class institutions, Marx does not concede them any importance, except insofar as they are spontaneous creations of the proletariat:

“With regard to the existing cooperative societies”—he says in his Letter on the Gotha Program—“they only have value insofar as they are the creations of the workers themselves, which receive the aid of neither the government nor the bourgeoisie.”


The organization of the economic affairs of society must lead, according to Marx, to the destruction of the State. It is therefore not a question of using the State, but of dismantling it. The Communist Manifesto defines the State as the committee in charge of the general affairs of the bourgeoisie, and in The Jewish Question Marx revealed the secret of the existence of this parasitic organism external to society. The class struggle can therefore be reduced, in this manner, in conformance with Marxist thought, to the progressive dismantling, with a view to its final disappearance, of political power and the elimination of the functions of the State.

The passages where Marx expressed his anti-statism are numerous. Among his early works, The Poverty of Philosophy offers the most characteristic passage regarding the purpose of political power:

“Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No.”

“The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class, just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders.”

“The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.”

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the oppressive and artificial character of the State is clearly exposed:

“It is immediately obvious that in a country like France, where the executive power commands an army of officials numbering more than half a million individuals and therefore constantly maintains an immense mass of interests and livelihoods in the most absolute dependence; where the state enmeshes, controls, regulates, superintends, and tutors civil society from its most comprehensive manifestations of life down to its most insignificant stirrings, from its most general modes of being to the private existence of individuals; where through the most extraordinary centralization this parasitic body acquires a ubiquity, an omniscience, a capacity for accelerated mobility, and an elasticity which finds a counterpart only in the helpless dependence, the loose shapelessness of the actual body politic — it is obvious that in such a country the National Assembly forfeits all real influence when it loses command of the ministerial posts, if it does not at the same time simplify the administration of the state, reduce the army of officials as far as possible, and, finally, let civil society and public opinion create organs of their own, independent of the governmental power.”

But it is in his theoretical apology for the Paris Commune that Marx presents us with his most violent indictment of the State:

“The unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organized by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excrescence.”

“While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.”

And further:

“The Communal Constitution would have restored to the social body all the forces hitherto absorbed by the state parasite feeding upon, and clogging the free movement of, society.”

What, after all, is the famous letter concerning the proposed Gotha Program, but a harsh diatribe against the democratic statism of Lassalle and his friends?

“It is worthy of Lassalle's imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!”

When considering the following quotation we should also keep in mind what Marx said about the cooperatives:

“‘Elementary education by the state’ is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school.”

And this anti-statism of his is so obvious that, in his debate with Bakunin, with relation to all the questions of the International’s internal organization, Marx could proclaim that he was an anarchist in the anti-statist meaning of the word:

“All socialists”—Marx writes in Fictitious Splits in the International—“see anarchy as the following program: Once the aim of the proletarian movement — i.e., abolition of classes — is attained, the power of the state, which serves to keep the great majority of producers in bondage to a very small exploiter minority, disappears, and the functions of government become simple administrative functions.”

An anti-statism this radical implies a no less absolute anti-patriotism. Is not the idea of the fatherland the principle buttress of the idea of the State? This is why Marx denounces patriotism as the symbol of inter-class unity and the antithesis of the class struggle.

The Communist Manifesto issued the proclamation:

“The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.”

A proclamation repeated in Marx’s book on the Paris Commune, with respect to the war:

“The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable is national war; and this is now proved to be a mere governmental humbug, intended to defer the struggle of classes, and to be thrown aside as soon as that class struggle bursts out into civil war. Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the national governments are one as against the proletariat!”

For Marx, as for the revolutionary workers, the frontiers are located between the classes, not between the peoples.

Revolutionary development

The social transformation will not be the work of one day. It depends upon the prior formation of the proletariat as an organized class, capable of replacing capitalism. It is, then, a long-range undertaking, requiring patience, which is imposed upon the working class.

Marx warns us, regarding the Commune:

“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”

Practical action, creating institutions and ideas, is therefore more important than any other factor. Only practical action is revolutionary, not oratory. This is why the proletariat will manifest its power with acts, not words. And because it will gradually, day by day, produce a great body of revolutionary institutions and ideas, its generalization will become possible at a certain point, and the proletariat will be able to form society in its image.

This is what Marx called, using a felicitous expression, revolutionary development.

“Whereas we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power’, you say on the contrary: ‘Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.’ Whereas we are at pains to show the German workers in particular how rudimentary the development of the German proletariat is, you appeal to the patriotic feelings and the class prejudice of the German artisans, flattering them in the grossest way possible, and this is a more popular method, of course. Just as the word ‘people’ has been given an aura of sanctity by the democrats, so you have done the same for the word ‘proletariat’. Like the democrats you substitute the catchword of revolution for revolutionary development. . . .” (Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne).

Everyone knows how much Marx, with his faith in action, hated dogma. Who has not heard of his ironic deprecation of the recipes for the cookshops of the future, or of what he wrote to his friend Beesly: “whoever writes a program for the future is a reactionary”; and, finally, the famous sentence from his letter to Bracke on the Gotha Program: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

This scorn for formulas, this feeling for life, this preoccupation with the positive creations of the proletariat and this disdain for romantic hopes, are what give Marxist thought an eternal capacity for renewal.

We acted in this spirit, then—although some thought that we were mistaken—that time some years ago, when, during the high point of the crisis of socialism, we called for a return to Marx.

Left revisionism

1. The crisis of socialism

There is unanimous agreement that the crisis in socialism is due to the divorce between theory and practice. A socialist theory and a democratic practice cannot coexist for long. All the internal disturbances that have disorganized socialism during the last few years stem from this contradiction.

It is impossible to conceive of a situation where activity should possess two superimposed and independent dimensions: doctrine and action. Actions dictate beliefs, and the way one behaves depends on the way one thinks. The problem of disposition to one behavior or another is always resolved in the sense of the conceptions we hold, and our reactions to life are better indications of our own feelings.

But ideas depend on the environment in which they arise. They are nourished by the surrounding life, and reflect variable combinations, and the way one thinks depends on the way one lives. Everyone knows that a particular mode of existence creates a particular mode of thinking, and that a particular idea needs, in order to be produced, a particular cultural terrain.

These old truths have been ignored by socialism. It was believed that it was enough to set forth a few general formulas about the collectivist ends that are implied by the capitalist regime. It was claimed that these predictions were authorized by science, and that the proletariat, through the conquest of power, would transform them into realities. Once these abstract principles were proclaimed, practice seemed of no importance. Since historical progress followed a predetermined line of march, the working class masses were exempt from any effort of adaptation: external development rendered internal development useless. The whole problem revolved around the conquest of power; all that was needed was to transfer to the electoral terrain the cohesive powers of the working class by getting the workers to join the party, in order to thereby convert the class into the agent that would execute historical necessity.

This revolutionary formula has undoubtedly always been used. The class struggle has been invoked apropos of everything and anything. The fight to the death between the proletariat and capitalism is constantly recalled. But it has been limited to the diplomacy of parliamentary action and, on the pretext that the class struggle is a political struggle, it has become an exclusively electoral struggle. The question was not asked regarding what kind of terrain was most conducive to the formation of class consciousness, nor how to create greater homogeneity within the working class. It was never really seriously considered whether or not the trail blazed and followed empirically by the democratic tradition was socialist; those who followed it were theoretically socialists and practically democrats. Socialist ideas, without any contact with life—neither inspiring it nor being inspired by it—therefore remained at the stage of pure abstractions and lifeless idols.

This flagrant discontinuity between socialist conceptions and a purely democratic activity has been increasing as the socialist parties become important factors in national life. The discontinuity has been greater in the more advanced democratic regimes; but the crisis has been a general crisis in Europe, and, from one country to another, it has only varied in degree, not in its nature. Traditional socialism cannot stand the test of democracy.

2. Reformist revisionism

Such an opposition between theory and practice was bound to provoke a legitimate reaction. This was the origin of reformist revisionism. Bernstein’s concern was to make socialist doctrine conform to parliamentary conduct. In this way he abandoned the one to save the other; in other words, he reversed their roles.

This attitude could indeed appear to be scientific. It exhibited all the forms of the realist method, and it was destined to be more successful among those who were aware of the internal contradictions of socialism and were trying to reestablish its lost equilibrium. Thus, where socialism was able to make the most progress in terms of its organization, its theoretical degeneration and practical decline were precipitated.

The decomposition of its doctrine has been thorough. Reformist revisionism has rejected the economic conceptions of socialism, which laid bare the separation of the classes. It alleged the adaptability of bourgeois society, which it has attempted to progressively influence in the socialist sense. The class struggle has been replaced by class collaboration and ministerialism. The democratic ideas of vague social progress, thanks to successive reforms, have replaced the socialist ideas of the continuous struggle until final victory. Social peace, that is, the amicable solution of the conflicts of interests between the classes, has become the rule. Reforms have appeared as a natural meeting ground between all men of good will who desire to remedy the evils of big industry. Legality has never had more fanatic supporters than the revisionists, who have been transformed into the latest defenders of law and order. Socialism is no longer the organization of the working class rebellion, but an extension of democracy.

In practice, all of this has resulted in a moral decline and parliamentary cretinism, from which no example has up to now been displayed of any kind of opposition party. Government socialism has suffered the fate of the mainstream political parties. Through its devotion to the cabinet ministers who constitute its true clients, it has abdicated all ideals; it has no other concern than the extension of State services, the expansion of public functions, the replacement of the existing political, judicial and administrative personnel by a different one. Its politics have not superseded the points of view of democratic politics: financially conservative with the petit bourgeoisie, anti-cooperative with the small shopkeepers, protectionist with the poor peasants, in favor of law and order with government power.

This collapse into demagogy was fatal. Parliamentarism is the terrain par excellence of the decomposition of bourgeois society. It is the old world, with its intrigues, its corruption, its debasements. In it, no new idea germinates, everything tends to corruption. In order for socialism to make use of it safely, it would be necessary for the prestige of politics to be diminished and for syndicalism to undergo significant growth.

3. The impotence of traditional socialism

When they saw to what degree the parliamentary practice of State socialism led to the demoralization of the masses, the founders of socialism, in an instinctive gesture of aversion, restated their previous formulations regarding revolutionary socialism. They had the desperate energy of creators who see their work being destroyed. They issued appeals to the dispersed socialist forces and tried to defend their principles.

But they did not go any further than that. They fought against the excesses and indignities of parliamentarism, without however providing any other basis for socialist action. They continued to speak of the class struggle on the electoral terrain, and advocated ferocious intransigence in parliament. This led to a desiccation of theory and an enervation of practice.

Lasallian illusions regarding universal suffrage, however, had to be abandoned! Many years of experience have dissipated these illusions. The belief in economic fatalism cannot be reborn. The creations of the proletariat, the manifestations of their beliefs possess, despite everything, some importance. It is not enough to uphold traditional ideas: thinking that does not renew itself is moribund thinking.

With regard to revolutionary socialist tactics, they have almost always provoked crushing disasters wherever they have been intransigent, and have caused the worst confusion wherever they have been flexible. Parliamentary action, which cannot possess the malleability of clay, will never posses the rigidity of iron. Who can distinguish the votes of the revolutionary deputies from those of the reformist deputies in Parliament? Does it not amount to an effort to square the circle when one resorts to ultra-revolutionary proclamations while preserving a purely parliamentary tactic?

The socialist parties that have not been broken up by democracy can still harbor some illusions and continue to believe in the possibility of socialist action on a parliamentary basis. But the parties that have been shattered by their encounter with democracy cannot, under the penalty of sterility, continue to rebel for much longer against the lessons of experience.

4. Revolutionary revisionism

So how can socialism reconcile theory and practice? By a twofold method:

First, by recalling, above all, the old historical materialism of Marx, who did not want ideas to assume a concrete form outside of their natural environment, and thus by asking how the class struggle can become a living reality;

Second, by observing the subsequent new facts that arise; deriving from the syndicalist movement all the new ways of thinking and living that it offers. This involves a return to socialist principles, and the abandonment of the solely democratic terrain. As opposed to reformist revisionism, we must support revolutionary revisionism.

We must insist on this; the error has consisted in considering the class struggle as an electoral and parliamentary struggle. The class struggle is a political struggle, in the sense that it has the purpose of changing social relations and their corresponding institutions in their entirety. The revolutionary proletariat does not fight just for its immediate economic interests, but for the general interests of the working class. Its mission is to reduce, for the benefit of the world of the workers, the State’s zone of influence and the powers of its parasitic organs. Between these two powers, the traditional power and the new power, there is an implacable rivalry with regard to the conquest of functions. The workers movement has no meaning except insofar as it develops its own institutions at the expense of the capitalist institutions. And by becoming an ever more independent force, relying only on itself, and actually constituting a State within the State.

Its revolutionary mission is also two-pronged: negative and positive. It destroys and it builds. It dismantles the traditional rules and brings new standards for life. It has its own laws, which are opposed to the current ideas of bourgeois society. It develops its technical, political and moral capacities so as to be able to exercise the difficult task of carrying on production. It cannot be compared with anything else, because it is a new creation of history, like the industrial environment that engendered it. It will bring to the renewed world an entire ensemble of institutions and ideas, created by its everyday practice. And its labors will only come to an end when the capitalist type of society has been replaced by the socialist type of society.

But this class struggle can only find its verification on the economic terrain. The unity of the elements that constitute the proletariat can only be achieved after a long series of common struggles, in which the fact of defending the same interests and fighting the same enemies creates an indomitable solidarity. The development of class consciousness, that is, of the feeling that the common cause is more important than the individual’s cause, is only possible at the cost of voluntary sacrifices that temper the character and create men. The feeling of responsibility cannot be profoundly rooted except in men who have undergone the test of life.

There is a great distance between parliamentary socialism and revolutionary syndicalism. It is, however, possible to conceive of the special mission of a socialist party in Parliament. If it consents to be nothing but an interpreter of the aspirations formulated by the working class masses, if it works modestly and sets limits to its action, if it conceives itself as a secondary and derivative movement, it can be effective. The problem of parliamentarism—which cannot be totally eliminated by critique—can be resolved in this manner. But this solution is subordinated to the intensification of the social movement and the progressive reduction of the political movement. The social prevails over the political.

Theory is thus identified with practice. It is not a collection of formulas to which the workers movement must conform; it is a creation of everyday practice that is determined by the circumstances of the working class, which through its experience and its reactions indicates the road that must be followed. Socialism then takes the form, not of a system, but of the transformation of institutions and ideas by the organized working class.

Practice is becoming coherent. It does not conceive of reform, or of everyday activity, as neutral ground, indifferent in itself, that would miraculously allow it to carry out the revolution without organically preparing for it. It is reform, and daily practice, upon which it bestows a revolutionary meaning. Socialism is not separated from life: it is incorporated into it and transforms it to the extent that it preserves the boundary line between what belongs to the working class and what is specifically bourgeois, and fuels the fires of the passion for the struggle.

In this way, practice neither contradicts nor attenuates theory; rather, it conditions it. Socialist action is no longer a variety of verbal expression that shamefully submits to reformist tactics, but a form of action that recapitulates the entire life of the working class that wages its class struggle. The unity of the elements that fight is not due to a confluence of abstract principles, without any real content, which each person can interpret according to his own lights; it is a living unity that is based in the community of desire and action.

“The community of action, however,”—Marx said in the Letter of the General Council to the Alliance of Socialist Democracy—“called into life by the International Working Men's Association, the exchange of ideas facilitated by the public organs of different national section, and the direct debates at the General Congresses are sure by and by to engender a common theoretical program.”

It is therefore possible, despite the present state of confusion, to foresee the solution to the crisis affecting socialism. The primitive movement has been broken up; the crisis has found in its very cause the elements for its solution; theory and practice are reconciled in working class socialism.

Action by the party and action by the class

The problem facing the socialist party in France is not so much about finding the right form of organization, as it is one of how to acquire a precise idea of its action. A party cannot have the pretense of absorbing the entire movement of historical transformation that is socialism. The practice of the class struggle—that is, the organization of the workers revolt, the elaboration of economic institutions, and of new juridical and moral ideas, the only ones capable of giving the world an ensemble of rules for a superior form of life—is exclusively the task of the proletariat, which acts in its associations. But a socialist political party has its place, at least in the current situation, alongside the autonomous groups of the working class masses, on the condition that it does not confuse what is proper to action by the party with what is proper to action by the class.

The dual character of a party consists in the fact that it is composed of elements of essentially diverse origins and that its purpose for existence is restricted to the parliamentary struggle. This is just as true of the socialist party as it is of the other parties.

In France where, more than any other country, the parties do not represent classes, who would dare to claim that the socialist party is, in the strict sense of the word, the party of the working class? It is a people’s party, rather than a workers party. Has it not taken up the defense of the middle classes, the peasants and the petit bourgeoisie, as well as the workers? Are its ranks not composed, as are all the other parties, of men who for the most part come from the petit bourgeoisie, and above all of intellectuals, of professional politicians? Is it not possible to summarize the nature of the party, to some degree, with reference to this particular personnel that is increasingly tending, in accordance with a natural law, to constitute a quite specific grouping with particular interests and definite conceptions, which is imposed on the masses of the voters and the constituency that follows it? And how could it be otherwise if such are the essential characteristics of all parties?

With regard to its actions, whether it wants to or not, it has never ceased to be parliamentary. In a democracy like France, where the political parties, thanks to the intrigues of cliques and the normal game of parliamentary institutions, are obliged to form unforeseen alliances, the socialist party, with more or less precision, has formed alliances with the bourgeois democratic parties. Especially in the last few years, this is a law that has been imposed upon it and from which it cannot exempt itself. The reformist fraction, with more shamelessness, and the revolutionary fraction, with more reservations, have contributed, although in different ways, to the survival of the Combes cabinet. What else does this signify except that, since the proper function of parties is parliamentary action, once they have entered this terrain they are no longer in control of their own conduct? The environment in which they evolve imposes its rules upon them and they have to play by them.

To recognize in this manner the exigencies of parliamentary action that are the conditions of life for the parties, does not mean that we excuse the cowardice, the betrayals and the corruption that we have never ceased to denounce. It is for the purpose of proving, by way of a simple process of analysis, that parliamentarism has its own laws, that the parties are institutions that must submit to these laws, and that one must not ask of them what they cannot give. Lacking the power to create revolutionary institutions and ideas, the socialist parties cannot respond adequately to all the concerns of the working class: it would be to expose oneself without reason to new deceptions, much more cruel than the disappointments of the past, if one were to expect from their activity anything more than some useful assistance, and from their conduct any more than elementary political dignity. To still believe, after recent experiences, that a socialist party can, on its own terrain, which is parliamentarism, devote all its energy to the class struggle, would amount to a quest in search of the philosopher’s stone.

Socialism elaborates the class struggle little by little for the working class, which is revolutionarily organized in its economic institutions. It is the everyday struggle, which the proletariat is obliged to maintain against all hierarchies, against all authorities, against all the beliefs of the bourgeois world, which allows it to build at the same time that it destroys. It does not aspire to take anything from the capitalist order, and its essential role consists in producing original creations. No alliances can attenuate the political struggle that it constantly prosecutes against today’s society. It neither goes to parliament nor does it negotiate: it fights. Even when the struggle takes on organic forms—and this is the trend being reinforced every day—it loses nothing of either its revolutionary virtue or its educational value. No dogma or formula guides it: only experience points the way. There is no caution or fear of breaking alliances or violating agreements: it suffices to itself. It is admirable, this direct action of the working class that it exercises over itself and upon the bourgeois world, which allows it to simultaneously enact its measures and not to expect anything from anyone except itself alone!

The mission of a socialist party in parliament cannot consist of anything but giving legislative aid to the proletariat in its labor of autonomous organization. The insurrectionary proletariat must find its own road by its own efforts, formulate its demands and hone its conceptions on its own; the socialist party, if it wants to continue to exist in that form, must be inspired by these manifestations of workers action, and help facilitate, as far as possible, their unhindered development. This role, although secondary, is by no means an inferior role. There is nothing humiliating in testing the limits of its power, and in avoiding the ridicule that it would earn for displaying an attitude, which would be fatal, of wanting to go beyond its own abilities. This is the sense in which the French socialist party, if it does not want to lose itself in the democratic quagmire, must conceive of its action with reference to Syndicalism. If it proceeds in this manner, if it persists in pursuing radical tactics under revolutionary phraseology, socialism will not be doomed, but will seek refuge in its entirety where it already is located for the most part: in the General Confederation of Labor.

Such are in our opinion the conclusions that must be drawn from the experience of the last few years. Socialism, in France, has decomposed in contact with democracy. And it will only be rebuilt by taking into account the lessons that have been taught by this recent period of its development. It could be said, slightly altering an already existing formula, that socialism can only be a revolutionary workers movement in a democracy.

Political democracy and economic organization

The theoreticians of social democracy are not content with confusing such distinct notions as democracy and socialism. Their reasoning, by verbal analogy, has led them to reduce socialism to a simple extension of the rules of political democracy to economic organization. According to this conception, socialism is nothing more than the application to the world of labor of the modes of operation of representative government. They are therefore confounded by their faith in the term that is common to both political democracy and workers democracy.

Such confusion cannot be explained only by a systematic absence of any spirit of analysis, or by an inveterate tendency to judge by words, or a passion for verbalism, that does not consider anything but appearances and thus allows one to assimilate fundamentally dissimilar forms of organization; this must always be understood as exhibiting the will to establish a theoretical bridge between two orders of radically divergent considerations, which would make possible on the terrain of principles the fusion of simple democrats and socialists.

In fact, there is not the least similarity between political democracy and workers democracy. It is true that both are inspired by the democratic ideal of a government responsible to the masses. But that is all. In popular terms, in order to make everyday propaganda more accessible, it is declared that socialism will proclaim the Republic in the workshop. This does not mean that the laws of the republican government, such as they operate in our modern democratic regimes, will be simply transferred to the socialist organization of production and labor; this will mean, in general outline, that the working class will henceforth find in itself the source of all economic administration and government.

Furthermore, there is no real analogy between political democracy and workers organization; they are opposed in principle. Political democracy, with all its variants, from the representative regime to direct democratic rule, presupposes forms of social life whose destruction is pursued by socialism. By pursuing the political struggle in the strict sense of the word—and the working class cannot withdraw from it for even a second—is to place oneself on the terrain of bourgeois society, and to serve as a tool for the common action of all classes. The political action of the proletariat, as necessary as it may be, has nothing properly working class about it, and it is not the conquest of state power that can bring about the social transformation.

The workers movement, on the other hand, organizing the workers on the economic terrain, outside all previous and traditional modes of organization, creates new forms of life on proletarian principles, which can be more or less those of a socialist society. The victory of socialism is thus subject to the development of the workers movement, and will only be possible on the day that the latter, without having taken anything from the bourgeois world, has at least in part divested political democracy of its functions and has become capable of replacing it without fear. If it is true, as Marx says, that the proletariat educates society, it is not by reproducing the forms of organization that it combats, but by creating models of association, norms of life, types of institutions, whose novelty is in total contrast with the old order of things. The exclusive mission—the flesh of its flesh, so to speak—that the proletariat will impose upon the world, is an ensemble of new ideas: an unprecedented canon, in accordance with which it will transform society. How else can one conceive the revolutionary and creative action of the working class?

Once again, it is indisputable that, in order to form and develop, workers democracy needs political democracy. The proletariat does not organize in an extra-capitalist world, in a kind of neutral space. It organizes in the very heart of bourgeois society, with which it is everywhere in contact. To struggle against it, it needs to employ the means that bourgeois society puts at its disposal. It uses the political struggle, and exercises its pressure on the State, so as to overcome, as Marx says in the preface to Capital, all the legal obstacles that can impede the development of the working class. It is the fate of the proletariat, in the elaboration of the work of social transformation that it pursues, to be obliged to use the forms of the past to prepare for those of the future. It thus moves in two contradictory spheres of action, one of which is developed to the detriment of the other. Workers democracy only uses political democracy for the purpose of bringing about its destruction.

This dualism is what escapes the discernment of the theoreticians of social democracy. They have not distinguished the two forms of activity of the working class. And since their understanding embraces above all the scope of the traditional modes of action, they concentrate all their forces on the purely political struggle, to the detriment of that form of social organization that is slowly being elaborated. They do not see beyond the limited horizon of political action, which they perceive in the most narrow fashion. The organic alliance of the socialists with the democratic elements of the bourgeoisie, the gradual attenuation—up to the point of extinction—of class consciousness, the denial of the class struggle that dominates our social history, stagnation in the worst parliamentary cretinism, this is the degradation that the social democrats would like to impose upon the intense revolutionary action of the proletariat. The whole secret of their opposition to the dominant principles of socialism is recapitulated here; they conceive of a socialist struggle that conforms to the modes of action offered to it by bourgeois society; they refuse to understand the new formations that socialism bears within itself in order to generalize them in the transformed society: the world of the workers. They remain invincibly bound to today’s society; they are, without knowing it, the past. The socialist proletariat wants to be the future.

But these differences between political democracy and workers democracy are only differences of an external order, so to speak. The opposition resides above all in how they function internally.

Political democracy only considers the abstract man, the citizen. It is based on a necessary fiction: that all men, all citizens have the same value and therefore identical rights. The law is the expression of numerical relations, the work of the majority of these equal wills, the result of the general will. The whole problem posed by political democracy consists in trying to clearly discern this general will. And this can only be achieved by consulting the masses, whose decision, with regard to every question, must be final. Thus, the parliamentary regime—whether it adopts the representative system or the referendum—is the regime of all political democracies.

It is based on instability. Government by all the citizens is only possible if the latter are enlightened in advance. It is the proper nature of democracy to permit fully independent criticism on all matters, which sheds a powerful light everywhere. It is necessary for opinion, which must decide, to be formed without hindrance or coercion. The people, in order to exercise their sovereignty, must be free.

In order to achieve the results one could expect from it, political democracy needs to assure the education of the masses and endeavor to transform the fiction of the equal value of all the citizens into a living reality. It is naturally powerless to do so, however. The political terrain is of too great an extent, and the questions that arise within it are too complex for the masses’ general level of education for the latter to effectively play the role assigned to them in political democracy. The masses do not govern: they are governed by their own representatives.

All the critiques that have been justly leveled against parliamentarism insist on this lack of education and organization of the masses, which is the basis of the absolute impossibility for the latter to exercise a useful oversight over the government. At most, they can make their views known regarding questions of great general importance, in the form of broad currents of opinion.

The economic organization, on the other hand, only knows real men, workers who associate for the defense of their material and moral interests. Here we are no longer in the presence of abstract ideas, but of clearly determined concrete relations.

From the moment when we have real men before us, workers who do not have identical qualities, or carry out the same actions, a necessary process of differentiation takes place among them. The most conscious, those who are most ready to defend themselves and take part in the social struggle, are the first to join the associations, showing the rest the road they must follow. That is, a process of selection takes place, and the groups that are thus created acquire, from the point of view of the development of the proletariat, a capital importance.

Sorel has explained with great precision the organic role of occupational groups in The Socialist Future of the Syndicates. The latter naturally have the government of the working class in their hands. They are the representatives of the whole proletariat. As they develop, the number of their functions increases and the range of their influence expands. What has been called the tyranny of the Syndicates is nothing but their faculty for leadership, regularly conferred upon selected groups, that is, upon the body constituted by the workers who are most capable of safeguarding the interests of the entire class.

Workers democracy is therefore based essentially on the organized groups of the proletariat. This is the principle of its politics. The conception of an abstract equality is replaced by the notion of real differences. Not everyone is at the same level because not everyone has the same aptitude, but the defense of the specific and limited interests of the proletariat requires a high degree of competence. This is the life of the workers, in its most immediate and serious manifestation.

The development of the economic organization of the working class is measured by the progressive growth of its syndical groups. The more they act and deliberate in the name of all the workers, the more they affirm their role as directive and representational organs of the proletarian masses.

Here we have advanced far beyond political democracy, which only knows individuals. Now we only have groups before us. All instability is reduced to a minimum. The workers who are still unorganized cannot aspire, by virtue of an individual right that is superior to the right of all, to break with the principle of workers government by occupational groups. While political democracy is necessarily uncertain and chaotic, the workers movement tends to be stable and organic.

And the world of labor is a world apart. The work of production is difficult and can only be directed by the procedures of a political government. This presupposes a certain aggregation of skills and requires a strong hierarchy. This hierarchy is formed naturally in accordance with the law of selection in the organization of the working class, and it is this creation by way of selection that gives it a profoundly democratic basis. One could say that in a certain sense this is where the ideal of democracy that must push forward the best, that is, the most capable, under the permanent control of the masses, will be constituted.

If the theoreticians of social democracy succeed in imposing their conception, the proletarian organization would soon disappear. The occupational groups, which are voluntary selected formations, will be smothered in the amorphous mass of the unorganized workers. The destiny of the working class will be delivered over to the uncertainties and vacillations of opinion that are produced in political democracy. The prudent and wary government of the Syndicates will be replaced by the blind direction of improvised groups or political charlatans. Electoral customs cannot be introduced into the economic organization of the working class. Legislation, such as that proposed by Millerand regarding compulsory arbitration, which treat the workers only as voters, without taking the occupational Syndicates into account, will not fail, if the politicians succeed, to destroy the new forms of life that the proletarian organization bears within itself.

It is therefore false to consider socialism as the extension of political democracy into social democracy. And the experience of the workers movement confirms this assessment.

The exclusive primacy of the occupational groups, organs of a permanent government, competent and stable, is increasingly verified in the development of the working class. To the extent that the collective worker acquires self-consciousness, he replaces the disorganized and chaotic action of the unorganized workers with the methodical and concerted action of groups. No longer are relations established between an isolated proletarian and an isolated capitalist; instead there will be new relations between workers groups and employers groups. The individual labor contract becomes collective, at the same time that the collective worker replaces the individual worker.

In solving conflicts, as in the exercise of all the functions that accrue to them, the occupational Syndicates will by no means reproduce the electoral practices of political democracy. The regulation of such vital interests of the workers is not confided to chance or to the ignorance of more or less blind voters. We are not in the presence of a dust-heap of men, periodically swept along by the variable winds of politics. We face a new organization of labor, regularly responsible for the least details of the workers lives, unaffected by electoral agitations.

As can be seen, nothing is less similar to parliamentary tactics than the action of the organized proletariat. Parliamentarism unites, on the terrain of joint deliberations, political parties that represent divergent interests. The workers organization directs the struggle of economic groups, among which opposed interests engender an intractable struggle. In parliament, the parties act in continuous collaboration: they coalesce according to political combinations or parliamentary alliances. The regular and constant contact between the opposed parties reduces the impact of their respective features: in this regime of pacts nothing takes place except a consistent pattern of self-diminution. On the economic terrain, class conflicts develop freely and without confusion; the workers groups have nothing in common with the employers groups. While in parliamentary life the parties collaborate, in economic life the classes fight against each other. The pretense of the social democrats to extend the parliamentary reality of party collaboration to the economic reality of the class struggle would be a vain and unrealizable effort. They are two different worlds that follow their own respective needs.

There is a political parliamentarism; there can be no economic parliamentarism. All the attempts to organize employers and workers into the same groups will fail miserably. The class struggle is irreducible. The works committees and other expedients of social peace will not change this in the least. The proletarians and the capitalists do not have to deliberate in common; economic interests are not defended by proceedings of academic debate. The relations between classes are relations of force, and it is by force that they must be regulated. The form that the struggle between proletarians and capitalists must acquire with more and more precision, will undoubtedly allow for groups of workers to enter into negotiations with employers groups. But one thing that the development of the workers movement does not seem to be ready to allow is that the employers and the workers should be mixed together in these groups, or that the representatives of the of the workers and the employers should be permanently combined, as in political parliamentary bodies.

Such mixed groups are a dream of bourgeois democracy, whether it goes by the name of Christian Democracy or Social Democracy.

Nor will industrial democracy be established by means of intimate collaboration—in the form of dispersed stock market shareholdings—between the proletarians and the capitalists, in the management of factories and business firms. This is the most humorous aspect of the democrats’ innovations. For this joint ownership, part-employer, part-worker, which would weaken the capitalist system by simultaneously incorporating the proletarian class into the capitalist system, is inconceivable. It does not seem that this proceeding of raising into capitalist society those whose social destiny consists in being the disinherited of the current production regime, will be capable, while this order still exists, of acquiring the extension that the democrats expect. What industry, what business, subject to such a regime of economic parliamentarism, could last very long, not to speak of expanding?

DeRousiers, in his book on the labor question in England, cites the case of the textile factories of Oldham, which were established by issuing cheap shares, easily accessible to the workers, and which permitted the participation of the workers, owners of these shares, in the management of their own exploitation. It does not appear that this introduction of the labor element into the management of the enterprises was very fruitful. Capitalist industry does not lend itself to parliamentary procedures. It is not by assuming a more or less active role in the organization of production in capitalist society that the working class will transform the foundations of the latter; it is only by seizing the instruments of labor, by making itself the exclusive owner of the factories, workshops, etc., that it will assure its emancipation.

In the meantime it carries on its economic education in its own organizations. The occupational syndicates, by means of the struggles they wage every day against the employers on the terrain of production, comprise a powerful means of education, like the cooperatives in the realm of consumption. The working class, by its own persistent efforts and individual willpower, increases its technical skills. It prepares itself naturally for the function entrusted to it. It has no need—even if this were not a grotesque illusion and a childish hope—to install itself in the heart of the capitalist regime. Outside of the latter and against the latter, it is fully capable of attaining its total fulfillment.

The error of the social democrats consists in conferring upon an indisputable fact, the constitutionalization of the factory, an importance that it cannot have. It is obvious that the despotic authority exercised by the employing class without any counterweight in the workshop is progressively being reduced, with the progress in workers organization. It is also true that the internal constitution of the workshop displays a tendency to derive exclusively from the workers who staff it. But this is a simple result of the methodical organization of the class struggle. The working class, organized on the terrain of its general interests, reduces the oppression of the employing class. What relation could there possibly be between this normal consequence of the growth of the organized proletariat and the application of parliamentary methods to the world of industry? This development is one stage in the rise of the proletariat, which will be superseded by the next stage, until the working class disposes of the necessary force to realize the social transformation. The constitutional factory is not a mode of economic parliamentarism, but a stage of the class struggle.

The workers’ experience is even more conclusive. Economic democracy can only be established by the creation of a technical government of selected workers, which also, within the groups thus established, follows rules opposed to those of political democracy. It will have a tendency to assure the permanence of its administrators. They are not subject to the constant replacement that democracy imposes on its representatives, and are instead delegated, as conscientiously elected and minutely supervised officials, with durable and effective powers.

Economic democracy has not arrived at this conviction and at this practice of administrative stability all at once. At first it mistrusted its representatives just like political democracy. It feared excessive power and betrayals; it was the victim of disturbing exaggerations of the falsely democratic spirit. But all of this has already disappeared.

The workers institutions have a tendency that is growing every day, of giving their secretaries and officials the broadest powers, at the same time that it subjects them to more thorough supervision; they are mandated with longer terms of office, at the same time that they are given more responsibility. In this manner an elite of perfect administrators is formed, who will assure the prosperity of the workers organizations.

Where would the great English trade unions be without their specialized directors, without their bodies of officials? And the English and Belgian cooperatives, without their directors and administrators? And our own French Syndicates—as backward as they are—are they not measured by the degree to which their bureaus and their secretaries have precise functions and long terms of office?

It is true that workers democracy, due to the very fact of being exercised on a more limited and concrete field than political democracy, can more easily carry out this higher kind of organization that unites the constant control by the masses and the formation of the necessary hierarchy. While an abyss separates the masses and their representatives in political democracy—which gives the leaders such an exaggerated importance—in the workers movement, on the other hand, there is a solid connection and in addition, to some extent, equality of abilities. The Syndicates can monitor the action of one of their secretaries; occupational issues are within their competence. But how can the voters in a democracy impose their will on the deputies they elect?

Whatever the theoreticians of social democracy may say and do, there is an opposition between the political organization and the economic organization of the proletariat. The idea of assimilating these two very distinct orders of reality, may be tempting to bourgeois democrats, for whom the meaning of the workers movement and the class struggle must always remain obscure. One can understand why the Swiss democrats, with Javon, have been the first to conceive and enunciate this formula. But the socialists must know where they stand with regard to political democracy. They cannot forget that the outcome of struggles depends not on the extension of the principles of the political world to the world of labor, but on the autonomous organization of the proletariat.

The minimum program

The demands that must be satisfied by a minimum program cannot be determined except on the basis of an exact notion of socialism. It is possible to reduce the features of modern socialism to a few sufficiently precise general characteristics: socialism is an ensemble of ideas, feelings and institutions created by the transformations of the industrial world, of a purely working class essence, in the sense that although they may not be enunciated, translated or elaborated by the proletariat (1), they are, in the last instance, the product of their living conditions. The workers movement constitutes the pivot of socialism: by means of that movement, and only by means of it, the replacement of the old type of society by a new one will take place.

The working class is the revolutionary class par excellence, since there is an irreducible opposition of interests and feelings between it and capitalist society. In the bourgeois regime, there can be no stable situation or comfortable position for it. And it is the sensation of this irremediable antagonism, of this relentless struggle that the working class must wage against the current form of the organization of production, which forms the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat and makes the latter the essential element in social transformation. The other classes can hope for their liberation, sooner or later, through the perfection of the existing social machinery; only the workers have no other hope of freedom except by way of the destruction of bourgeois society.

This destruction is being gradually effected by the working class by means of the development of its own economic institutions. The great revolutionary achievement of modern times is not the formation of a constantly increasing proletariat by big industry, but the creation by this proletariat of a series of institutions of its own that are opposed to the institutions of the capitalist regime. Within their syndicates and cooperatives, the working class translates its modes of thinking and elaborates new rules for life, for morality and for the concept of legality. There exists within it a whole movement of autonomous and spontaneous organization that will destroy the material and moral buttresses of the bourgeois world, more effectively than any ideology.

The importance of these workers institutions cannot be overestimated. It has been written with justice that all of socialism resides in their development. The capitalist regime will not be transformed into a socialist regime except by this working class mechanism, in accordance with the rules of the proletarian institutions. It is in this sense of the word that Marx was able to say that the proletariat would educate society.

But the workers movement encounters terrible enemies. The State is its greatest enemy. The State has a natural tendency to absorb all functions, to restrict the autonomy of all groups, and to extend its field of action without limits. Faced with the workers movement, this tendency has accentuated and become more vigorous. The State sees the organization of the proletariat as its most dangerous competitor, and its most resolute adversary. Even when it does not combat it directly, when it tries to conquer it with unavoidable concessions, it is far from giving up, and all of its efforts are undertaken for the purpose of forcing its enemy’s progress into the moulds of its administrative and police guardianship. The mechanism of the State represents the political organization of the old society; the workers movement, with its institutions, announces and prepares the functioning of the new order of things.

The democrats, if they succeed in their policy of trying to fuse the proletariat into one great party that would embrace all the popular classes, will constitute a second threat, no less grave than the former for the working class. The day that the latter loses its awareness of class antagonisms and its relation to the capitalist regime; the day when it is convinced that its organization as a class is useless because the democratic regime is fully capable of resolving social conflicts, the proletarian and socialist movement will be lost. Perhaps it would then end up absorbed in State socialism; the parties of bourgeois democracy, having channeled the lives of the workers, could call the boundless extension of the activity of the State and the Municipality, socialism; but real socialism will have died in any event, because it will have lost its only foundation: the revolutionary and autonomous proletariat.

The duty of the socialists consists in fending off this dual threat. Against the expansion of the State’s powers, it is necessary to defend the proletarian camp and constantly expand its field of operations. It is necessary for the socialists to remind the working class at every opportunity that its mission is not to take over the administrative and political organs of bourgeois society, but to create alongside and in opposition to the latter new purely proletarian domains. “This is not a struggle to take over the positions occupied by the bourgeoisie and to assume its mantle; it is a struggle to drain the bourgeois political organism of life and to transfer everything useful that it contained into a proletarian political organism created along with the development of the proletariat.” (2) This difficult task is necessary, for the alternative is the nationalization of the natural functions of the working class institutions, which is the goal of many democrats who call themselves socialists and see this as the last word in our activity. But it is an effective struggle nonetheless, for it gives the proletariat that wages it the necessary distrust of statist formulas and the indispensable confidence in its own personal action.

Socialists therefore must additionally fight a two front battle against the vulgar democrats: they must not only clearly differentiate themselves from them, but also combat their efforts to establish State socialism. The State finds precious allies in the purely democratic, Jacobin and petit bourgeois parties. These allies petition it to use its coercive power to realize the plans for social reform that they have conceived within their narrow horizons. While the socialists demand from the State nothing but the curtailment of its activity (3), the limitation of its functions, the restriction of its interference, and the guarantee of the most absolute freedom, the democrats see the organism of the State as the instrument of progress as they conceive it, and the provider of the happiness of which they dream.

If socialism consists essentially in the organization of the working class into autonomous institutions, the characteristics that must be inscribed in a minimum program are easy to enumerate. Above all, such a program must be, according to Guesde’s expression in his article published in the second issue of Equality, dated July 21, 1880, “a means to unite the working class, which is now dispersed among the various bourgeois parties, and of separating it from those whose interests are diametrically opposed to its own interests, and to organize it as a distinct force, capable of destroying the current social regime.” That is, for a minimum program to constitute an instrument for the unity of the working class, it must above all be specifically addressed to working class concerns.

It is enough to coordinate and promote the demands specific to the working class that can make it conscious of its situation, of its interests and of its class role. For a different party, a different program. It does not have to assume responsibility for borrowing from the programs of the bourgeois democratic parties in order to prosecute a common struggle with them on the political terrain. Any inclusion in a minimum socialist program of points taken from the programs of democracy, on the pretext of fighting for the same liberal principles as the vulgar democrats, is useless and harmful. Useless, because it would play the game of purely democratic agitation, to which we would thus naturally lend our support, thereby rendering it unnecessary to do away with the sole reason for its existence. Harmful, because it would deceive the masses and cause them to perceive the differences between us and the democrats as of little significance.

But even with regard to specifically working class demands it is important not to confuse the masses concerning the positions common to all the democratic parties, and a choice must be made: it is essential to retain nothing but those which are most important, most urgent and comprehensive for the whole proletariat. Every superfluous element only weakens the proletariat; all confused elaboration of reforms of disparate importance, obscures the understanding of action that is immediately necessary.

Finally, after having separated what is accessory from what is essential, the particular from the general, a last labor of elimination requires that all demands that do not accord with the sense of the economic struggle or the socialist goal should be rejected.

Every program that fulfills these conditions will present a rallying point that is eminently favorable to the working class. It will formulate the only reforms that interest the proletariat, reforms capable of increasing its force for resistance and its offensive capacity and of contributing to the development of its own institutions.


Translated from the Spanish translation at the website of the Biblioteca Virtual Antorcha. See:

Also published in Nihil Obstat, No. 5 (2005), pp. 71-103. See:

Date of publication of original French text is not provided by the anonymous Spanish translation—the reference to the Combes cabinet (Émile Combes, French Minister of Interior from 1902 to 1905), suggests that the essay was written during or shortly after that period; biographical information gathered from internet sources such as the French language Wikipedia entry indicates that it was most likely written prior to 1909.


1. The representatives of working class socialism, although they are not proletarians in many cases, derive the elements of the theories they advocate from the working class and its social situation. Here is what Marx says in his Eighteenth Brumaire, concerning the democrats who represented the petit bourgeoisie in 1848: “What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.”

2. The Socialist Future of the Syndicates.

3. “Concerning the state,”—Sorel says—“the action of the proletariat is twofold: it must struggle within the existing framework in order to obtain social legislation favorable to its development. It must use the influence it gains either in public opinion or in the structure of power to destroy the existing political organization: one by one, seize from the state and the community all their powers in order to enrich the budding proletarian institutions—especially their syndicates” (The Socialist Future of the Syndicates).


Lucien Tronchet

12 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Lucien Tronchet on September 16, 2011

What do you think of the fact that this author became fascist minister of Labor under Vichy Occupied France Government?


12 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on September 16, 2011

I had that same thought earlier today.


12 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on October 16, 2011

I'm surprised that Marshall Petan's Labor Minister youthful document is still up on the library.


11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by NannerNannerNa… on April 16, 2013

Holy damn, this is a really excellent artie. Yeah, he becomes an opportunistic fascist worm but you'll see that's a long ways off when you read this amazing article. Seriously, it's so modern, too!

Also, apparently anarchism before syndicalism was a humanistic venture or something? No matter, if I may paraphrase the right-wing french syndicalists' favorite proto-fascist idiot, "anarchism liberated from the liberal and individualist element fits syndicalism like a well-made glove fits a beautiful hand".

Seriously, this is some good shit right here - you can even see the germs of fascism when he praises trade union bureacracy and the gloriousness of the "new" proletarian elite - although I'm sure this Lagardelle would change his mind if he knew the role trade union bureacracy plays in styming class struggle. I have a weird feeling that, like a lot of right-leaning syndicalists, he moved to the extreme right after getting some of that spirit of 1914 if you know what I'm saying.


8 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by syndicalist on December 15, 2015

Funny to see this one pop up in light of the whole MS situation