Syndicalism and its Significance

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2010

While I hope that I have adequately demonstrated the significance of Anarcho-syndicalism and its content, I would like to add the following points and observations.

If we evaluate German Anarcho-syndicalism purely on the basis of its numerical strength we can state that the FAUD had a mass-base for a brief period, claiming some 150,000 members. If we compare this number with other contemporary workers’ organizations, however, we are forced to concede that even in its heyday it was far behind its opponents. Union organizations, like the Hirsch-Dunckerist Workers’ Associations counted several hundred-thousand members among their ranks, the christian unions comprised over a million workers and Germany’s General Association of Workers (ADGB) came within reach of the 10 million-mark. By its own admission the FAUD never played a major, nationwide role at the factory-level.

So why should anyone bother with this subject? In a number of historical works and research projects it is apparent that Syndicalism, in contrast to the present, was well-known among the contemporary working class. This seems perplexing, given the small size of the FAUD and the fact that it lacked access to anything resembling present-day mass-media.

This was a consequence of syndicalists’ consistent anti-militarism and untiring agitation prior to the First World War, which were remembered by many disappointed social-democrats and contributed to the first wave of new members in the months following the war’s end. The papers of workers’ parties and centralized unions from this period are filled with warnings and disparaging remarks about syndicalist organizations. The functionaries of these reform-oriented groups were haunted by the specter of Syndicalism, the “french tumor.” These functionaries firmly held their ranks in their campaign against any form of worker self-organization, which resulted in a merciless fight at the level of the workplace, and can only mean that Syndicalism, in their eyes, was a competing influence that posed a real threat. Mainstream trade unionists even went so for as to call for the firing of striking syndicalist colleagues.

The syndicalist movement was also known to the „Organ of the Worker and Soldier Councils of Germany,“ the „Workers’ Council,“ in the revolutionary period from 1919-1920. Indeed, the social-democratic workers’ councils felt the need to declare “the Workers’ Unions” a “new abscess of the Workers’ Movement” in their national paper.

According to detailed sources, more than 40% of the participants in the March Revolution were syndicalists, whose struggle is described by Erhard Lucas and Hans Marchwitza, among others. The Political Police of the Weimar Republic did not list syndicalists under communist organizations, as do many historians and “social scientists,” but gave them an independent status. In the fotographic information collected by the police at the beginning of the Weimar Republic a number of syndicalists appear alongside “celebrities” like writer Kurt Tucholsky and the future East German head-of-state Walter Ulbricht.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the syndicalist movement, or at least parts of it, were not only recognized in prominent circles, but was even considered worthy of support. The well-known women’s rights activists Helene Stöcker and Anita Augspurg made donations to the FAUD’s fund for the Munich Landauer Memorial, and Stöcker both spoke at events organized by the Friends of Free Books and published articles in the organ of the Syndicalist Women’s Group. Syndicalists in turn lauded her as “a sympathetic fighter, one whose views are close to our own.” No less a personality than actor Alexander Granach provided Erich Mühsam and Rudolf Rocker with money to aid the Spanish revolutionaries Durruti and Ascaso in their flight. The legendary Ukrainian revolutionary Nestor Machno likewise found refuge with Rudolf Rocker as a refugee. In an essay solicited by the German military, Max Weber identified syndicalists as the most forceful opponents of militarism. Even Lenin mentioned the German syndicalist movement in his work “State and Revolution,” holding leading figures of the workers’ movement like Karl Legien responsible for the growth of this “blood relation of opportunism.” It goes without saying that Syndicalism was known among Bohemian circles, whose prominent figures included Ernst Toller, Oskar Maria Graf and Erich Mühsam, and the latter, a close friend of Rudolf Rocker, joined the FAUD in 1933. Heinrich Vogeler, painter and founder of the “Barkenhoff” art colony in Worpswede near Bremen, was associated with the anarchist and syndicalist movements and provided them with a homestead. It is also no wonder that the “Herodotus” of Anarchism, Max Nettlau, was also in close contact with the movement and provided the famed author Ricarda Huch with material for her biography of Bakunin. The German expressionist writer Carl Einstein did not encounter Syndicalism until later, but fought with German Anarcho-syndicalists in the Spanish Civil War as part of the Colunna Durruti and produced an excellent account of his experiences. Albert Einstein (no relation) and Thomas Mann also recognized the true promise of Rudolf Rocker’s “The Decision of the West,” and Einstein and Rocker piled praise upon one another. Leading Anarcho-syndicalists like Rocker and Souchy were also particularly popular speakers at universities following the Second World War.

It is also worth noting that long before the philosopher Hannah Arendt first tasted the air of academia the syndicalist movement had already developed a “Theory of Totalitarianism,” the product of experience and an international network of correspondents, chief among them Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker and Alexander Schapiro. Political careerists, including later mayors and legislators, also began their political lives in the syndicalist movement, the best known being Herbert Wehner, who eventually became the party chairman of the SPD.

German syndicalists also played a deciding role in the reorganization of the international syndicalist movement after the First World War. Reacting quickly to the communist foundation of a workers’ international under Moscow’s leadership, the partisans of syndicalism founded the International Workers’ Association in 1922 as a conscious continuation of the First International’s Bakuninist tradition. Rudolf Rocker, Augustin Souchy and the Russian-born Alexander Schapiro were the first to chair the organization, whose central office was based in Berlin until 1933. At its foundation the IWA had over a million members—in 1936 the number of Spanish members alone rose to some 1.5 million. For large numbers of workers Rudolf Rocker’s “Prinzipienerklärung des Syndikalismus” was considered the authoritative text of the movement.

Those German Anarcho-syndicalists who successfully fled to Spain following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War organized themselves into the Gruppe DAS (German Anarcho-Syndicalists) in Catalonia. The Gruppe DAS managed the correspondence of the underground resistance in Germany and put German fascist groups in Catalonia out of commission. Members of the group also fought against Franco’s armies at the front, and although much smaller than the communist International Brigades in terms of raw numbers, were of equal importance to the revolution and its participants. Meanwhile, the fascist authorities in Germany, anticipating the pull that the Spanish Revolution could exert upon the population, placed the remaining Anarcho-syndicalists in Germany under special observation.