Chapter 7: The World Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s

Submitted by Steven. on June 8, 2011

The International Association of Workers was reconstituted at a moment when the global revolutionary wave had already begun to subside. Many of its sections were soon subjected to harsh repression and were crushed. In Italy after the regime of Mussolini took power, the activity of local branches of the USI was paralyzed already by April 1924.

Going underground, the labour federation re-organized and was able to lead a number of significant strikes (miners in Valdarno and on Elba), marble workers in Carrara, and metalworkers).

But by 1927 the USI had finally been destroyed, its leading activists either arrested or forced to emigrate.

In Portugal after the installation of a military dictatorship, the CGT tried to organize a general strike in February 1927. The strike was suppressed, nearly 100 people were killed, many activists were arrested, and the CGT was outlawed. It succeeded in re-organizing its forces underground and re-established a number of unions and branches of the federation. In 1929-1930 the organization had 32 unions with 15,000-20,000 members, and by 1934 it included seven federations. The Portuguese anarcho-syndicalists continued a tenacious struggle against unemployment and the high cost of living, for the 8-hour day, and the right for unions to exist. In January 1934 decrees of the Salazar government about replacing unions with corporations of the fascist type were greeted by the CGT with a “general revolutionary strike” and an uprising. The revolt suffered defeat. The heroic resistance of the Portuguese workers could not avert the destruction of the CGT.

In Argentina the FORA towards the end of the 1920’s had a membership, according to various sources, somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 and conducted successful general and localized strikes, achieving the implementation of the 6-hour work day. However a military coup in 1930 and the subsequent persecution dealt a heavy blow to the organization, from which it was unable to recover.

In Germany, after the downturn of the revolutionary movement in 1923, the membership of the FAUD began to fall sharply: in 1929 it still had 9,500 members, but under conditions of catastrophic mass unemployment this number decreased to 6,600 in 1931 and 4,300 in 1932. This small organization was no longer able to conduct strikes independently.

It carried on active cultural work and campaigns for the boycotting of elections, and participated in strikes organized by the reformist labour unions in order to impart to them a more radical character. Emphasizing direct action and strikes of solidarity, it tried to oppose the onslaught of Nazism. After Hitler took power, the FAUD continued to resist underground until the second half of the 1930’s.

The headquarters of the IWA in Berlin was seized by the Nazis and the members of the Secretariat barely succeeded in fleeing Germany.

As a result of massive government repression anarchosyndicalist unions were destroyed in Peru, Brazil (after 1930), Columbia, Japan (in the mid 1930’s), Cuba (after 1925-1927), Bulgaria (the Confederation of Labour which appeared at the beginning of the 1930’s had been wiped out by the end of the decade), and the countries of Central America. In Paraguay and Bolivia activities of the anarcho-syndicalist workers’ organizations were banned during the Chaco War (1932- 1935) and subsequently were not able to attain their previous level. The French section was also unable to acquire a mass character. The great crisis of 1929-1933, accompanied by the growth of nationalist and statist sentiments, significantly weakened the movement in the majority of other countries.

In Mexico the leadership of the CGT collaborated with the national-reformist government, accepting the principle of arbitration of labour disputes by the State; the Confederation quit the anarcho-syndicalist International. By the end of the 1930’s legal anarcho-syndicalist trade union associations existed only in Chile (General Confederation of Workers, 1931), Bolivia (Local Federation of La Paz), and Uruguay (FORU); the FORA operated in the underground.

The main stronghold of anarcho-syndicalism remained Spain where, following the fall of the monarchy in 1931, a vigorous growth of the strength and influence of the CNT took place. “From all sides, from Germany, Poland, France, and other countries where there are IWA sections, the Secretariat receives communications about the existing state of mind, which ... it is possible to express in the following form: ‘International fascism has destroyed our revolutionary movement in most countries... Only in one country do we entertain hope that the social revolution can overcome it [fascist reaction, – V. D.] – in Spain’,” – wrote members of the IWA Secretariat in a message to the CNT in June 1934.

At the first legal congress of the labour federation in 1931, more than 500,000 members were represented and a few years later the number of members exceeded one million.

During the first year and a half of the republic’s existence, 30 general and 3,600 localized strikes were organized, mainly by the CNT. The peasantry, organized by the anarcho-syndicalists, seized land from the estate owners, demanding socialization, on a massive scale. In 1932-1933 a wave of local revolutionary uprisings rolled across the country: members of the CNT seized control of population centres and proclaimed libertarian communism. The authorities were able to suppress the movement only with difficulty. Thousands of people were killed or arrested, but the influence of anarchosyndicalism in Spain continued to grow.

Confronted with aggressive reaction, the anarchosyndicalists had to deal with a series of tactical questions. First of all, an IWA plenum at Innsbruck (December 1923) once and for all condemned the actions of the Bolsheviks, repealed the concessions made to the French syndicalists at the constitutional congress, and rejected the possibility of a united front with the communist parties. The second congress of the IWA (1925) confirmed its negative attitude towards all political parties which were regarded as tools in the struggle for power, rather than for freedom. Any long-term alliance with political parties was impossible, for this would contradict the goals of the IWA. Participants at the congress perceived fascism and Bolshevism as “reaction of a new type,” resorting to naked tyranny and massive repression. The congress expressed the conviction that it was necessary to defend civil and union freedoms as conquests of the workers, but not as part of a democratic system which was liable to be overthrown along with capitalism.

Anarcho-syndicalists should act independently and not make official alliances with anyone else even if, in the course of struggling with fascist and military dictatorships, they happened to “cross paths with other political forces.”

In the struggle with Bolshevism any kind of collaboration with other forces was impermissible. It was noted that the liberal bourgeoisie, when confronted with a threat to their own rule, was always prepared to transfer power to dictators.

Therefore the struggle with dictatorship must not be carried on in such way as to strengthen democracy as a system of government. The best means of struggle with dictatorship, according to a resolution of the congress, is the class struggle of the workers. More or less the same tone was displayed in a resolution adopted at the 4th Congress (1931). The IWA was oriented, in the first instance, to working together with other groups with similar views (anarchist federations and groups, anti-militarists, etc.), but also permitted practical co-operation for concrete goals with other labour unions, supporting strikes and conducting solidarity campaigns. The IWA frequently made approaches to Internationals of socialdemocratic and communist labour unions about mutually organizing boycotts of fascist and dictatorial states and the goods produced in them, and trying to stop the delivery of raw materials from other countries in the case of strikes, etc. At the beginning of the 1930’s the struggle with fascist reaction became even more urgent for anarcho-syndicalists, but they endeavoured in dealing with the problem to adhere to their social-revolutionary line. In the appeal issued by the IWA for May 1 1932 it was said that “in a number of countries in the immediate future the question will arise: revolution or fascism?” [158] In 1933 the anarcho-syndicalist International called for a global boycott of Nazi Germany.

The Spanish and Swedish sections worked out plans to avoid handling German goods and vessels, accompanied by consumer boycotts – this idea was also supported in Holland.

But the French section expressed opposition, fearing such actions could be exploited by Hitlerian propaganda. Repression against the CNT at the end of 1933 finally put an end to these plans. In their attempts to oppose international reaction, the anarcho-syndicalists did not put their faith in social-democrats and communists and boycotted their “antifascist” and “anti-militarist” congresses. After the proposal by the communists about the creation of a “United Front,” the Secretariat of the IWA queried the sections, but ended up sharply rejecting the idea (only the FAUD, already being in emigration, supported the notion of a “united front against fascism”). In May 1934, the Secretariat issued a declaration once more rejecting any possibility of organizing a “united front.” A corresponding resolution, proposed by the French section, was passed at the 5th Congress of the IWA in Paris (1935).