Syndicalist Sociology: The Forgotten Work of Guillaume De Greef

Black and white print of Guillaume De Greef

An overview of the largely forgotten work of syndicalist sociologist Guillaume De Greef. De Greef's perspective was greatly influenced by Proudhon. It is believed that De Greef prepared the program if the Belgian delegates to the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA, or First International) in the 1860s. As an academic he organized an exodus of scholars from the University of Brussels in response to the university’s decision to dismiss the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus.

Submitted by greensyndic on August 29, 2023

Radical perspectives, particularly those that have connections with or roots in actual movements for social change and resistance, often find their contributions unacknowledged or marginalized within formal academic disciplines such as the social sciences. Even where such radical perspectives make useful, insightful contributions to the development of, and developmental debates and arguments within, an academic discipline they are often written out of the history of those disciplines after the fact.

Such has been the case especially for those theories that challenge instituted structures of authority, such as anarchism or syndicalism.

Despite the fact that anarchism has always informed sociological thought and debates (from the inception of sociology as a formal discipline up through the present) anarchism has largely been excluded from discussions of sociological thought. This is true in the case of both texts on the history of sociology as well as in works focused on traditions of sociological theory (see Shantz and Williams 2014). Recently, though, some work is being done to re-evaluate the contributions of anarchism to the social sciences more broadly (See Howell 2014; Shantz 2014; Shantz and Williams 2014; Williams 2014).

If anarchism has been marginalized within disciplines like sociology, the situation is even more dire for treatments of syndicalist theory within sociological history (and thought). With a few exceptions syndicalism has been rendered, unjustifiably, invisible. Syndicalism emerges as part of the radical working class movements in the nineteenth century, not only in Europe but on virtually every continent (see van der Walt 2010). It presents searching perspectives on exploitation, labor, and workplace relations that eschew hierarchy, including labor hierarchies, and emphasizes informal work networks, rank-and-file self-determination, and working class solidarity and autonomy from capital. At the same time syndicalism highlights social developments that hint at alternative social relations in formation, suggestive of “a new world within the shell of the old.” This is an anti-authoritarian vision of labor that focuses on working class self-organization and decision-making. It views such organizing as incubators for new, innovative, non-exploitative, forms of human social arrangement.

Syndicalism has made important contributions to thinking about work, production, divisions of labor, hierarchy, authority, class relations, democracy, etc. Yet an examination of sociological history or theory texts shows that syndicalism is almost entirely absent from the literature. The few exceptions include brief discussions of Georges Sorel, theorist of revolutionary syndicalism, the general strike, and social myth, who wrote numerous notable texts such as The Decomposition of Marxism (1908), The Illusions of Progress (1908), Material for a Theory of the Proletariat (1919) and most famously Reflection on Violence (1908).

Yet there are other, intriguing yet hidden, syndicalist contributions to sociology, from practicing sociologists, from within formal sociology. Among the most interesting and insightful if unjustly long forgotten syndicalist contributions to sociology is the work of Belgian sociologist, and contemporary of Sorel, Guillaume De Greef (1842–1924). Indeed, De Greef has been recognized as Belgium’s most prominent and noteworthy sociologist (of any tendency or tradition). The radical character of De Greef’s work perhaps contributed to the limitation on its broader influence on Belgian sociology, during his lifetime but especially following his death.

De Greef was born in Brussels in 1842 and was raised in a family of free thinkers and artists. In his youth he read progressive philosophers, like Voltaire, who influenced the thought of Revolutionary France and the generations following the Revolution (Douglas 1948, 539). As a university student he gravitated toward the works of utopian socialists, including Saint-Simon and the proto-anarchist Charles Fourier, before coming to his greatest influence Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first to explicitly identify his philosophy as anarchist. De Greef adopted Proudhon’s theory of mutualism that emphasizes social order and interchange on the basis of mutually beneficial, equal, exchange or interaction. De Greef would go on to edit the Proudhonian journal La Liberté along with his colleague and classmate Hector Denis.

From his days as a university student onward the petit bourgeois De Greef would dedicate himself to the cause of the working class and social reform (Douglas 1948, 539). It is believed that De Greef prepared the program if the Belgian delegates to the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA, or First International) in the 1860s. A clearly Proudhonian program, emphasizing free credit and opposing any state, this perspective was defeated at the International by the approach promoted by Karl Marx, which asserted the necessary role of a proletarian state in the transition to communism. The growing dominance of Marxism in international socialist movements contributed to the marginalization of De Greef’s syndicalist perspective, as indeed it did for other libertarian and anti-statist versions of socialism and communism.

With his influence within the labor and socialist movements waning, De Greef devoted his efforts increasingly to his academic research and writing. De Greef’s first published monograph in theoretical sociology appeared circa 1886 with his relatively influential Introduction à la sociologie. The critical response to De Greef’s initial work was so positive that he was appointed the first Chair in Sociology at the University of Brussels. While in this position De Greef became embroiled in some controversy related to the university’s decision to dismiss respected geographer, but active anarchist, Elisée Reclus, due to that eminent scholar’s political agitational work. In response De Greef mobilized an exodus of numerous other professors and students from the school (Douglas 1948, 540). The departed scholars soon founded a new progressive institution, L’Université Nouvelle, which was committed to work in the social sciences while also asserting freedom of thought and cooperation with the educational movement of workers (Douglas 1948, 540). This project, and the earlier support of Reclus and academic freedom, shows De Greef as a committed public intellectual and principled scholar. The project also represents a much earlier model of institutions such as the New School for Social Research set up as centers of critical research, scholarship, and pedagogy in the face of politically motivated attacks on critical and progressive scholarship and faculty.

De Greef’s sociological work builds upon Proudhon’s conception of free credit associations and proposes the notion of occupational representation through trade associations. In this perspective free credit associations would be organized on a trade by trade basis in each locale. In this they would carry out their more traditional economic activities but also, at the same time, assume the functions currently carried out by the political state. In this the trade associations provide the basis for a syndicalist form of social order. Notably this vision of social order is developed by De Greef more than a generation before the ideas presented in the works of better known syndicalists such as James Guillaume and Emile Pouget or in the guild socialism of G.D.H. Cole (which is perhaps closest to De Greef’s perspective).

Among De Greef’s major theoretical works are Structure général des societies and Lois sociologiques. His applied works, which stand as some of his most engaging, include Ouvrière dentellière (The Women Lace-Makers), Rachat des charbonnages (The Repurchase of the Coal Mines), and Régime representatif (How Government May Be Made Representative). These give a robust presentation of the Proudhonian syndicalist social order in the actual contemporary conditions of life which they discuss (rather than in a future utopian scheme). In his social researches De Greef finds evidence for such directions among social conditions and practices. His is not some speculative or utopian approach.

De Greef’s analysis centers on the role of workers’ associations, something similar to but more than trade unions as typically understood. Collective bargaining in industry provides the model for an occupational parliament on a national scale for De Greef. This occupational parliament is accompanied by transformation in systems in credit (in a manner inspired by Proudhon’s discussions). In terms of political transformations, De Greef suggests that formal democratic practice may be reformed immediately by having all people register at polls by trade instead of by simple geographic divisions or ridings. In these trade polls, workers and management are represented separately and equally (Douglas 1948, 541). While his will initially result in an inequality of representation, as fewer owners will have the same representation as far more workers, De Greef is not overly concerned by this. From his perspective this approach makes tis contradiction open for all to see unlike current representative democracy which masks this fundamental reality of social structure and inequality. In his view:

"Equality is not personal, but functional….Suppose there were formed a nationwide trust of all coal mines….in the hands of a dozen….large capitalists. These twelve….could have a representation equal to that of the 144,000 workmen!....well, I do not recoil before this abominable situation. Why? Because….I prefer a truthful representation to one which is fictitiously and deceptively democratic. What matters it if the mirror that reflects our social system gives back an ugly image? Is it the fault of the mirror that society is not beautiful, and should we in anger throw down and break the mirror." (quoted in Douglas 1948, 542)

As labor comes to play a more predominant economic role (in cooperative ownership, for example) its representation will grow accordingly. As capital becomes usurped or expropriated its representation will diminish such that workers solely will be represented.

At the same time governance can occur on a day to day basis in local joint industrial councils. These industrial councils, including employers and workers, will oversee grievances, working conditions, and trade issues.

For De Greef, these innovations, which are possible within current conditions, would bring the social questions, and key economic functions, to the center of politics (rather than giving them the phony cover they enjoy in conventional parliamentary politics). At the same time they would shift the reconstruction of these systems in the direction of control by labor (Douglas 1948, 542). This would occur because of the day to day practical and pedagogical effects of a national system of mass, rather than trade-based or union based, collective bargaining in which all were directly and actively involved.

It was De Greef’s expectation that the syndicates would eventually take on the functions of employment, through cooperatives for example, and thus assume all political power (Douglas 1948, 542). In terms of the system of credit, De Greef suggests the issuing of what amounts to fiat currency, alongside redeemable money (Douglas 1948, 541). Fiat notes would reflect the commercial and industrial transactions underway at a given time. They would not carry any interest above a nominal charge for overhead and risk and would be apportioned to member institutions, typically workers’ associations, which would supervise applications for credit by members and apportion the notes accordingly to them. Such readily accessible credit made available to productive enterprises would allow for syndicates to quickly take over collective contracts for work (Douglas 1948, 541). In De Greef’s view, this would mean that idle capital would be absorbed by the syndicates with the capitalist employer eventually dispossessed (as a matter of economic efficiency rather than political ideology or revolution).

De Greef analyses processes that simultaneously bring social contradictions to the surface of politics and transform social relations in the present. His evolutionary approach is a break with most syndicalism which asserts revolutionary perspectives on social change. Indeed, De Greef’s work is particularly at odds with the perspective of Sorel who abhors notions of worker and management councils or collective bargaining which he views as buffers on class struggle. For Sorel, the emphasis is on scission or the rupture, along class lines, of workers and capital. In this, class violence famously plays a part in Sorel’s view.

De Greef, perhaps ahead of much early sociology, provides an ecological analysis that recognizes and emphasizes the connectedness of humans and the natural world and centers this in his analysis. He emphasizes not only humans and their social relations, but situates these within the physical environment in connection with which he says human relations must be studied. De Greef constructed Herbert Spencer’s notion of social evolution in terms of increasing differentiation and coordination (Douglas 1948, 542). This is similar to the ecological notion of unity in diversity.

Overall, De Greef understood his sociology as a merging of Comte (classification), Spencer (social evolution), Quételet (statistics and quantitative analysis), with socialism In his view sociology is scientific socialism. Yet this is a socialism of Proudhon rather than of Marx. De Greef’s syndicalist perspective suggests that economic activities outweigh the political. In addition, organic economic divisions according to function represent the rational seats of power in the future (Douglas 1948, 551). At the center of his analysis is his conception of débat, or processes of mutual interest adjustment between groups and group pressures. In a subsequent article I examine this and other key components of De Greef’s sociology.

Further Reading

Howell, Christopher. 2014. “Anarchism: A Critical Analysis.” Radical Criminology. Brooklyn: Punctum, 155–164.

Douglas, Dorothy W. 1948. “The Doctrines of Guillaume De Greef.” In An Introduction to the History of Sociology, ed. Henry Elmer Barnes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1926. “The Social Purpose in the Sociology of De Greef.” American Journal of Sociology 31(4): 433–454.

———. 1925. Guillaume De Greef: The Social Theory of an Early Syndicalist. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shantz, Jeff. 2014. “Lombroso’s Anarchy Problem.”

Shantz, Jeff and Dana M. Williams. 2014. Anarchy and Society: Reflection on Anarchist Sociology. Chicago: Haymarket Press

van der Walt, Lucien. 2010. Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940. Leiden: Brill.

Williams, Dana M. 2014. “A Society in Revolt or Under Analysis? Investigating the Dialogue Between 19th-Century Anarchists and Sociologists.” Critical Sociology 40(3): 469–492.