Syndicalism: What It Is - Gaylord Wilshire

Gaylord Wilshire
Gaylord Wilshire

Brief explanatory article by Gaylord Wilshire (1861-1927). Known as the "millionare socialist", Wilshire served as emergency editor of The Syndicalist and was a friend of Emma Goldman

Submitted by David in Atlanta on December 30, 2007


by Gaylord Wilshire

Emergency Editor of April and May 1913 numbers of "The Syndicalist" during the imprisonment of Guy Bowman
Price: One Penny / Two Cents

"If the workers can organise to win Socialism by a General Strike then they certainly can organise to win it at the ballot box, and, as the latter is so much the easier method, we can see no reason for exhorting them to the more difficult."

The above sums up the attitude of the Parliamentary Socialist to Syndicalism, and when he says it he thinks he has said quite the last word.

However, the Syndicalist would reply, first, that, as a matter of fact it is not more difficult to organise for a general strike than for victory at the ballot box, and, secondly, that, whereas industrial organisation can give us Socialism, political organisation cannot.

To take up the first point. It is admitted that the facts are with the Syndicalist as to the working man being willing to stake his very life upon a strike that will give him little or nothing even if won, whereas he will not take the trouble to walk ten feet to a ballot box where a victory might give him most substantial benefits.

But, says the Socialist, it is merely a question of time when the worker will see the futility of striking against the capitalist and voting for him on the next. That looks logical enough at first glance, in fact it has looked logical to me for many years past, but now I have my doubts. Why? A Labour organisation is a perfectly natural organisation for a worker to function within; in fact, it is the most normal organisation possible. Labour is the basis of life. Hence his activities within a labour organisation can very easily be infinitely more pronounced than in a political organisation, which is more or less foreign to him even when completely in his own control. Therefore it may be that we will never see the worker exhibiting the comparatively slight effort to achieve a political victory that he will to obtain an industrial one, merely because he must in order to achieve the political victory learn to work within an organisation not quite natural to him.

For him to learn this may seem easy enough, just as it may seem easy enough to teach a fish to live out of water, but practise has proved the contrary.

However, may it not be that it is not merely a question of the workers' slowness to adopt politics that is against the hope of obtaining victory through storming the ballot box? May it not be that the workers' instinct against politics is sounder that the intelligence of the intellectual?

The Socialist says, let us only introduce a majority into Parliament and we will then introduce the cooperative commonwealth. But this involves two assumptions: first, that the capitalist class will allow the majority of Parliament to vote away their property rights; secondly, that it is possible to hand down Socialism from above to the workers.

Inasmuch as the question of a Socialist political majority in any country is really very remote at present, the discussion as to whether the capitalist class now in the saddle would allow such a majority to introduce Socialism is rather academic.

However, I would point out that in Germany, the only country where such a majority seems a near political possibility, the question of the workers having their suffrage very much restricted is regarded by German Socialists as a most likely event. If this were done, then of course there would be no chance of their ever getting a majority. The worst of it is, too, that they admit that their only reply is a General Strike. In other words, they will be forced to go back to Syndicalism, to direct action, to obtain the right to vote. It is obvious that if they will then have the power to demand the transfer of the industrial machinery direct to themselves without the intervention of the state. A political party is really not an organisation, it is merely an aggregation of people who unite to vote for someone to represent them. Therefore, a political party cannot be an effective weapon against men who are organised, whether they be capitalists or workers.

A Socialist Party, even when in a majority, has no physical power through its mere unorganised numbers to make a successful contest with the dominant organised capitalist class who are in control of the organised state. If and when it gains is asks for the fruits of victory and receives a refusal, then it must cool its heels in the corridors until it gets the physical power to take the fruits. There is only one way to develop this power and that is through organisation, either armed or industrial. Armed force may be dismissed as chimerical, although I note that Congressman Victor Berger has recently said that unless the workers are armed it will be impossible to achieve Socialism peacefully. And that is perfectly logical from the standpoint of the Parliamentary Socialist who has got along far enough to see that force is necessary to back up votes, but who has not thrown off the traditions of 1848, and faith in the barricades. The workers will gain control through their industrial solidarity, never through their ability to outshoot the military.

However, it is not so much the inability by reason of the lack of physical force which would account for the inability of a Socialist political majority to give Socialism. It is that the social organisation would not be ready for the metamorphosis.

The Syndicalist views both nationalisation and municipalisation of industry with more or less indifference.

The essence of Syndicalism is the control by the workers themselves, be they intellectual or manual, of the conditions of their own work,

The growth of the machine process has divorced the worker from the control he formerly exercised by his individual ownership of the tools of production.

Today the capitalist owns and controls the tools formerly owned by the worker, with the result that the worker is practically his slave.

Syndicalism proposes that this control of the technical processes now exercised by the capitalist shall pass to various groups of organised workers of the various industries. The product which is now the property of the capitalist would become under Syndicalism the property of the community.

Syndicalism has no thought of arranging industry upon the basis of each group of workers in each industry holding up the community to the full extent of its economic power, in order to extract the greatest amount of reward for its particular form of labour.

The remuneration of the worker will be determined either by deeds, or by needs, as may hereafter be decided, but most certainly not upon the basis of allowing him a reward according to the importance of his industrial product to the community, for that would be merely changing the present system, with its small number of capitalist exploiters, to a worse system, with a myriad of exploiting workers.

All Socialists admit that the change from capitalism to Socialism involves an enormous change, not only in the social organisation but in the individuals as well.

We have often had to wave off with contempt those who say that Socialism is all right if you could only change human nature first. Our reply was that Socialism would change human nature after we had Socialism, whereas Syndicalists insist that the close attachment the workers will develop for their industrial unions will certainly change their natures prior to any advent of Socialism through Syndicalism.

The Syndicalist proposes that the workers shall form industrial unions, based upon the particular industry taken as a whole instead of upon craft, although he will admit that the industrial union may well be built up by the amalgamation of craft unions.

By the close affiliation of all these industrial unions the Syndicalist not only sees that the workers will have the power to control the form of the future society, but he also foresees that the industrial unions themselves will form the framework of that society.

He insists that the present state cannot possibly be continued into the future society, even though the Socialists should gain political control and should try to introduce Socialism by means of it. He regards the present State as a decaying, obsolete organisation which must be superseded by the coordinated industrial unions, and therefore he cannot view the political control of the present State as an event of the same importance that it has in the eyes of the Socialist.

In other words, the Syndicalist says, first, that it will be most difficult for the Socialists ever to get a majority in Parliament; secondly, that when there is a chance of such an event the capitalists will find a way to nullify it; and thirdly, even though the Socialists should get control of the State that they would find that the present form of society cannot be successfully transformed from above downwards, because the natural method of such an organic change must take place from the workers up through their industrial unions.

Parliament today is made up of representative from geographical districts, and is in no sense a body adapted to intelligently regulate the industrial life of the workers. A body to be competent for such a purpose must be made up of delegates from the organisations of industry, and it would seem practically impossible to transform Parliament into such a body. The Syndicalist says there must be a substitution of one body for the other, whereas the Socialist looks to an impossible metamorphosis of Parliament.

The Socialist always hastens to declare that he, too, believes in industrial unions instead of craft unions, and that he, too, regards the economic action of the workers as of equal importance to their political action, that they both are the two necessary balancing wings, etc.

However, when you analyse his position you find that he really regards the economic action as merely a good way of developing the political sense of the workers for getting their votes, and in no sense will he admit that the industrial union itself can of any possibility be the power that will reorganise society.

The Syndicalist recognises the use to which the Socialists would put the unions, and therefore they almost fear to countenance political action at all because of the Socialists diverting them from their most important functionìto revolutionise society.

If women understood Syndicalism there would be fewer Suffragettes fighting for votes worth little or nothing when granted. Voting for a representative is abdication [of one's freedom].

Syndicalism is distinctly for mass action and mass consciousness, and recognises that nothing can be done without concerted, organised action. It believes in direct action by the mass and not by the individual.

It is said that the Syndicalist is merely returning to the old Robert Owen idea of a federation of unions. It is true that the organisation suggested is similar, but the method of obtaining possession of the machinery of production is essentially different.

Syndicalism is frankly revolutionary in its attitude towards property. It says that when the workers organise industrially they can and will take possession of the machinery of production. Owen never suggested any such revolutionary act. His proposals had the endorsement of the most conventional and conservative of people. He even had sympathetic audiences with royalty, to whom he elaborated his plan to regenerate mankind.

Finally, I would say that Syndicalism is at once an interpretation and a prophecy of the labour movement. It is not so much a creed as it is a statement of what is and what will be.

It declares that the workers are bound to unite industrially and that the power which industrial unionism will give them will be inevitably used for their own advantage. It declares that this power can be more easily used to take possession direct of the machinery of production through the industrial unions that it can be used to take it through the existing State by voting and gaining a political majority.

It moreover declares that the idea of this direct possession of industry by themselves will be far more inspiring to successful action than any proposal to take industry over indirectly though the State. It declares that a conscious minority of the workers when organised can influence the unconscious majority unorganised, and urges this influence.

Where Socialism to be successful implies a political majority, Syndicalism requires merely a strategic industrial minority.

Syndicalism solves the problem of the conquest of the industrial voter, which has been the despair of Socialism. First, by offering him a place in the new industrial society in his present position without change, if he wishes it. There is no awkward suggestion that the land be confiscated and he be reduced to a wage earner working upon a farm owned by the Socialist State. Under Syndicalism there will be no wage system. Secondly, Syndicalism does not need the agricultural vote anyway, as it can be victorious without it as soon as the industrial workers become class conscious enough to organise effectively. A minority of such workers will organised industrially can influence the rest of the community.

Syndicalism is inverted Socialism. The different between Syndicalism and Socialism is the difference between a man and a machine. The man himself controls his own activities; the machine is controlled from without.

Both Syndicalism and Socialism look to a worldwide democratic organisation of the workers for cooperative production and distribution. But whereas Socialism looks to social organisation, proceeding from the present Capitalist State downward to the workers, the Syndicalist looks to the revolution proceeding upward from the workers to organised society.

Instead of the State giving industrial control to the workers, as the Socialists fondly hope, the Syndicalists look to the workers taking such control and giving it to the community.

Syndicalism, therefore, declares that the important work for Social Reconstruction is Industrial Organisation rather than political organisation.