A Reply to Syndicalism: Its Strengths and Weaknesses

A response from Tom Wetzel of the Workers Solidarity Alliance to Alan MacSimóin's article on syndicalism.

Submitted by R Totale on January 19, 2022

The working class is a subjugated and exploited group within capitalism. As class struggle anti-authoritarians, both Workers Solidarity Movement and Workers Solidarity Alliance believe that the working class has the potential to emancipate itself from class oppression, and in doing so it creates a new social structure without a division into classes. Despite Alain MacSimoin's rejection of syndicalism, there are in fact broad areas of agreement between the WSA and the WSM. In exploring this I'll look, first, at how I understand class, and, then, how I understand the path by which the working class can emancipate itself.

Two Classes or Three?

A class is a group differentiated by power relations in social production. There can be different structures in society that can provide power that is the basis of a class. First, there is ownership of land, buildings, and other means of production by a minority capitalist class. The rest of us are thus forced to sell our time to the owners in order to live. Marx held that ownership is the only basis of class division. From this he inferred that capitalism has two main classes, workers and capitalists.
The WSM adheres to this two-class theory: "Classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production; their relationship to the factories, machinery, natural resources, etc. with which the wealth of society is created. Although there are groups such as the self-employed and the small farmers, the main classes are the workers and the bosses. It is the labour of the working class that creates the wealth. The bosses, through their ownership and control of the means of production, have legal ownership of this wealth and decide how it is to be distributed."
But this is an inaccurate picture of advanced capitalism. Ownership is indeed the basis of the vastly powerful capitalist class. And the smaller assets of the small business class is the basis of what power they have. But modern capitalism created huge corporate hierarchies to control the labor process, and also required a huge expansion in the state, with similar hierarchies running various government operations. In the process, capitalism created a third main class, which I call the techno-managerial class.
This class includes managers, and top experts who advise managers and owners, such as finance officers, lawyers, architects, doctors, engineers and so on. These are the people who make up the chain-of-command hierarchies in the corporations and the state. The bosses who working people deal with day to day are mostly the techno-managerial class. The members of this class may have some small capital holdings but mostly they live by their work. The basis of their prospects in society are things like university educations, credentials, connections, accumulated expertise. The power of this class resides in a relative monopolization of expertise and the levers of decision-making.
This class was created through the way capitalist development changed the labor process and the division of labor. Redesigning jobs and work processes, to remove conceptualization and autonomy from the workers and putting control into the hands of a managerial hierarchy, enables firms to enhance their control over what workers do on the job, minimize training costs, and reduce the wages they must pay for scarce skills.
The techno-managerial class participates to some extent in the exploitation of the working class but also has conflicts with the owners: the recent cases of bosses looting corporations like Enron are an example. There is a conflict of interest between managers and owners, and periodic struggle between them.
An important feature of the techno-managerial class is that it has the potential to become a ruling class. This is the historical meaning of the various Marxist-Leninist revolutions. Those revolutions eliminated the capitalist class, created economies based on public ownership, but, nonetheless, the working class continued to be subjugated and exploited. Each of the Marxist-Leninist revolutions consolidated a techno-managerial ruling class.
The potential for a new ruling class of this type to emerge was hinted in a prescient remark of Bakunin. Bakunin warned that Marx's proposal for a party of "scientific socialism" taking power through a state "would be the rule of scientific intellect, the most autocratic, the most despotic, the most arrogant and the most contemptuous of all regimes. This will be a new class, a new hierarchy of sham savants, and the world will be divided into a dominant minority in the name of science, and an immense ignorant minority."1
Despite Bakunin's insight, traditional anarchism never developed a theory of the techno-managerial class. This led anarchists to misdescribe the Soviet Union as "state capitalist." Workers Solidarity Movement says:
"Since the early 1920s, anarchists have recognised that the Russian economy is capitalist because it maintains the separation of producers from their means of production and undervalues their labour to extract surplus value for a ruling class as in all Capitalist countries."
The "separation of the workers from their means of production" refers only to the ownership relation. Thus they fail to recognize that monopolization of the levers of decision-making and expertise can also be a distinct basis of class power.
And further: "Absence of private property in the Soviet Union is often put forward as evidence that Stalinist countries are not Capitalist but some new 'Post-Capitalist' property form." Note that they assume here that it is the property ownership relation that determines the class nature of the system. If we want to avoid the consolidation of a techno-managerial ruling class in a future revolution, we need a theory of what gives this class power and a program for dissolving the power of this class.2
The nature of any new social formation that emerges from major social conflicts, will be determined by the character of the main social forces at work in that process. The only way that we can ensure that a society that is self-managing emerges as the result of such a social process is if the main movements that are working for change have a self-managing character and practice, so that people have developed the egalitarian and democratic practices and habits required for society itself to be self-managed. The way in which people organize themselves for change is important in shaping what the outcome will be down the road.
How do we ensure that social forces in a revolutionary process do not contain within themselves the seeds of a new techno-managerial class emerging, as has happened in the various "Communist" revolutions? To avoid this outcome we need mass organizations that avoid corporate-style hierarchies, or practices that concentrate the expertise, knowledge, and decision-making in a few.
Traits like articulateness, self-confidence, effectiveness as a speaker can be developed through practice, but some people come to social movements with these advantages due to superior education or other advantages. Movements need to develop practices and organizations that can nurture self-education, develop the skills and knowledge of ordinary people who become active in the movement, so that they acquire the ability to be more effective in charting their own course.

What Syndicalism Is

Syndicalism is a strategy for the emancipation of the working class from class oppression; that is, it is a revolutionary strategy. It sees the class struggle as the process out of which a movement is developed that can free humanity from the oppressive structures of capitalism. Syndicalists hold that, in the words of Flora Tristan, "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."
We hold that this struggle provides a motivation for workers to organize together and engage in collective action against the bosses; it provides a field of action in which workers can use their force of numbers to increase their social power. This field of struggle also provides a school of life, in which workers learn about the nature of the system that oppresses them.
The basic idea of syndicalism is that by developing mass organizations that are self-managed by their participants, particularly organizations rooted in the struggle at the point of production, the working class develops the self-activity, self-confidence, unity, and self-organization that would enable it to emancipate itself from subjugation to an exploiting class. The self-management of the movement itself foreshadows and prefigures self-management of production by the workforce, and the direct self-governance of the society by the people.
To create a society in which the mass of the population are directly empowered, directly in control, this process of self-management must first emerge and become entrenched in practices of self-management of struggles within capitalism, to break habits of deference or resignation to forms of hierarchical control. Traditionally syndicalism was defined in terms of the development of movements in the workplaces, movements for workers control, organizations for the self-management of the struggle with the bosses. But the strategy of developing self-managed mass organizations of struggle can also be applied to other struggles that arise in working class communities, such as struggles over housing, or struggles of public transit riders.

Uneven Consciousness

Although we believe that the working class can develop the capacity to emancipate itself from class oppression, the working class alive today has not, at the present moment, developed this capacity. Why not? Some anarchists seem to imagine the destruction of the system of oppression as a spontaneous rebellion, something that could happen right now. The assumption is that the working class right now has the capacity to toss off its subjugation, as a spontaneous act. The problem with such a view is that it cannot explain why this revolution has not already happened.
Social systems of oppression reproduce themselves over time by the social structures, like class position or patriarchy, having an impact in the psyches and habits and expectations and behaviors of everyone. That is why a revolution that can overcome oppression, and not just replicate a new form of oppression, requires a more or less lengthy process of change in the working class itself, a change in people. To have the capacity to take over the running of the society, the working class needs to develop the self-confidence, leadership skills, self-organization, cohesion, and the vision and values that provide both the power and the aspiration to challenge the bosses for control of the society.
As the working class develops in this way, it poses its own "counter-hegemony" (in the words of Antonio Gramsci) to the prevailing culture, politics, and institutions of the capitalist social order. How far do workers understand the system that oppresses them? What is their sense of power to make changes? How far do they aspire to make changes? These things all vary between individuals, and within the class as a whole - over time, and between different places.
"Consciousness" is uneven, and capable of development, in both individuals and the class as a whole. People learn about the structure of power that dominates them by fighting it. When people become committed to struggle, they acquire the motivation to learn more and acquire the skills needed to make their struggle more effective. If people don't see people willing to stand up for others, if they don't see much opposition to the bosses, they will not tend to think in terms of collective action as a way to deal with the society around them. They will have a sense that "you're on your own."
The development of larger-scale movements begins to give the people involved more power, and this then alters the perceptions of ordinary folks because now they see that there is perhaps the power to change things. And the degree of change that people begin to see as possible will be shaped by their perception of the willingness of others to fight, and to support each other.
The WSM says that the working class is not revolutionary because of "ideas" that "tie the working class to capitalism." Obviously there is an element of truth to this. But lack of exposure to "ideas" propagated by anarchist activists (and other critics of the prevailing capitalist system) is not a complete explanation for why the working class is not revolutionary. If working people have a sense of inefficacy, that "you can't fight city hall," they will be skeptical about our claims that they have the power to vastly change society.
In the absence of a sense of their own power, workers will view your anarchist ideas as "nice but unrealistic," not something to take seriously and act on. In other words, you must also explain why working people are often uninterested in finding out more about even the revolutionary ideas they do run into.
Many ordinary workers in the U.S. today tend to be highly skeptical about their ability to change things. A fatalistic attitude of "You can't fight city hall" is widespread. This doesn't happen because of lack of discontent. Harsh life prospects and deteriorating wage and other conditions, worse job prospects, over the past three decades in the U.S. has generated a lot of discontent and anger.
The skepticism and fatalism derive from a lack of recent experience with successful collective action and the absence of forms of organization that working people feel are "theirs."3 The hierarchical structure of the unions contributes to this. The national unions and large amalgamated locals in the U.S. tend to be dominated by "professionals of representation," a hierarchy of paid officials and staff, who control bargaining with employers, the handling of grievances, and tend to have a social service relationship to the rank and file.
Local unions that pursue a more independent, militant stance against employers are likely to run up against roadblocks of officials to effective action. To take an example, a campaign of self-organization by 600 immigrant baggage screeners at San Francisco International Airport was moving towards a strike to fight the Bush gang's threat to replace them with U.S. citizens. The strike would have shut down the airport. This move was short-circuited by an official of the SEIU, on the grounds that the union might be sued for an illegal strike. The 600 screeners then lost their jobs without a fight.
In other cases, when locals are deemed too militant, national unions of the AFL-CIO use their power to impose a dictatorship called a trusteeship - tossing out their elected officers and seizing control of the local with appointees of the bureaucrats. To have an organization that is "theirs," that can be a vehicle of a self-organized fight, of militant collective action, workers need to develop industrial organizations that they directly control. This is why the proposal for self-managed unionism is central to the program of the Workers Solidarity Alliance.
Organizations directly controlled by workers provides them the opportunity to gain confidence by controlling something themselves, and encourages the development of collective action. These things are indispensable to changes in working class consciousness in the U.S.
Some anarchists and syndicalists call for the formation of highly ideological unions that are committed to a 100% anti-capitalist program. An historical example of a large union that was built on this basis was the Argentine Regional Workers Federation (FORA), which viewed itself as fully committed to an anarchist-communist program. It saw no need for separate political and union organizations. This is sometimes called the theory of unitary organization, and in South America it is sometimes called forismo.
It is true that many of these syndicalists do not see any point to forming separate political organizations of revolutionary activists, apart from the unions. But MacSimoin is mistaken in thinking that all syndicalists historically, or at present, hold this view. The WSA has always rejected the theory of unitary organization. The WSA does not view itself as a union or proto-union but as a political organization of anti-authoritarian activists.
To take an historical example, the Turin Libertarian Group was a political group, a group of anarcho-syndicalist activists, in the Turin labor movement at the end of World War I. They worked with Gramsci and some of the other Socialist Party activists in developing the Turin shop stewards council movement in the factories. This was a grassroots rank and file movement, opposed to the social-democratic bureaucracy of the FIOM - the main Italian metalworkers union. It was a movement to unite the workers across union and ideological divisions, and with overtly revolutionary aims, of workers control of production.
When the rank and file council movement seized control of the large FIOM local in Turin, and restructured it under rank-and-file control, the ranks elected a member of the Turin Libertarian Group, Pietro Ferrero, as the secretary of the newly revamped union. They did so in part due to Ferrero's commitment to rank-and-file self-management.4 In this case the Turin anarcho-sydicalists did not try to separate themselves into a small, ideologically anarchist union, but worked in a larger rank and file opposition movement to restructure the official union. They also maintained their political organization to give voice to their own perspectives. The strategy of forming small, ideological "revolutionary unions" with a 100% revolutionary, anti-capitalist program really begs the question: How do workers come to agree with a revolutionary direction for the class?5
Moreover, what is the strategy for the workers who still exist in the AFL-CIO unions? A strategy for the development of working class struggle is incomplete if it doesn't have anything to say about the large numbers of workers who are organized in the hierarchical AFL-CIO unions. A process of self-development within the class must take place. The level of collective action is important to changing consciousness.
As people see more people willing to take action in solidarity with each other, and see examples of actions they could envision themselves doing, this will encourage them to think in terms of collective action as a way to improve their situation. The development of the power of the class directly shapes the understanding among working people of just how far they can go in challenging the present system. Practices of solidarity, of widening links between workers, are thus another key factor that shapes class consciousness.
Because this is a process of development, it means we cannot expect that people will start from a 100% revolutionary understanding at the outset. This is why we do not agree with the idea of forming small ideological unions committed to a 100% revolutionary program at the outset. There may be some activists who have a developed vision of a 100% alternative to capitalism who are present but many will not share this vision. In time, radicalization of the labor movement may generate a commitment to a revolutionary, anti-capitalist perspective in large numbers of people.
Self-managed unionism - mass organizations controlled by rank-and-file participants - is a transitional program for the class in the sense that organization of this kind provides workers with a venue where they control the struggle; they can feel that it is "theirs". They can thus develop self-confidence, learn to run something democratically themselves, and learn about the nature of the capitalist power structure they are fighting. There is thus a possibility (not a certainty) of deepening their radical critique of the system around them.
In some cases it may be possible for workers in AFL-CIO unions to revamp them into self-managing local unions. In other cases they may find it necessary to rebel, and break away from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, to create organizations they directly control. For workers in workplaces where AFL-CIO unions are not entrenched, there is the possibility of developing new, self-managing unions that are independent of the AFL-CIO.
At some point we could envision a number of radical, self-managing unions coming together to form a new, self-managing labor federation. In the U.S. unionism has only made significant advances during periods of major upheaval, with widespread strikes and new forms of action and new forms of organization emerging. In such a period, when workers are seeking ways to organize a more effective fight against the bosses, there is an opening for self-managed forms of organization to become more widespread.6
However, the WSM refuses to countenance breakaways from the hierarchical unions. "Breakaway unions offer no alternative in the long run as the problems that led to their formation will develop in the new union,"7 they say. It is certainly true that the forces that lead to bureaucratization of the unions can and do work on new unions that workers form. It is not certain that such forces will always win out since this depends upon the larger trajectory of society. As we see it, it is a mistake to infer that workers should not be working to develop self-managed mass organizations that are directly controlled by the rank and file. Breaking out of the AFL-CIO national unions is a tactic that can allow workers to do this. It isn't clear to us what alternative the WSM offers for creating mass workplace organizations that would enable the rank and file to control their struggle with the bosses.
For the working class to emancipate itself from class oppression, it must develop its own mass organizations through which it can chart a course of social change and create the new social order in which self-management prevails. Self-managed unionism is the transitional program that the WSA puts forward, towards this aim. Self-management of the struggle is not the whole of the story, however. The degree of solidarity between different groups of workers, success at navigating the shoals of racism, and success at maintaining independence of the companies, the government and the politicians are additional factors that affect the development of the class into a more effective oppositional force.
Racism is a structural feature of American society. It isn't just a set of "ideas" but exists in a set of social practices, engrained in the culture. Struggles against racism are necessary to fight it. Capitalism is a complex system of oppressions, along lines of race and gender as well as class, and struggles develop along a series of fault lines. Struggles of working people can emerge not only at work but in other areas of their lives, such as struggles of tenants against landlords, or of public transit riders against the government transit agencies.
The syndicalist concept can be expanded to apply in other areas besides the workplace; that is, the basic idea is the formation of mass organizations of struggle that are self-managed by their participants, prefiguring the self-management of society. As groups of workers seek alliances to strengthen their struggle, we can expect workers coming together into formations that transcend a particular sector, community or area of struggle. This coming together is needed to address problems that affect the working class as a whole, to develop consensus around a class-wide program, and to develop solidarity.
What is not clear in the WSM documents is how they propose that the class develop the means to control its own struggles and the mass organizations it will need to fundamentally challenge the capitalist system and build an alternative social order in which it is empowered. The WSM talks about workers forming industrial networks in industry. This is good but what are these networks to do? Workers en mass need to have vehicles of struggle, to advance their collective interests. If workers are to develop a movement to revolutionize society in the direction of self-management, they need to develop mass organizations that are themselves self-managing. Does the WSM agree with this?

Political Organization

Because the mass organizations of working people, in the workplaces and in the communities, are not likely to have a 100% revolutionary, anti-capitalist commitment at the present time, we believe it is necessary to have a separate organization of the anti-authoritarian activists who do have a vision for how the working class can create a self-managed society. In other words, the uneven consciousness in the class means that those who do see the need and possibility of replacing capitalism with a self-managed society are a minority. We agree with the WSM that it is necessary for anti-authoritarian activists to organize themselves, in order to "win the arguments about ideas" within the working class, to make our alternative vision more visible, and enhance our influence in social movements. As we've said: "An organization of anti-authoritarian activists can provide a comprehensive anti-capitalist vision which we are not as likely to get from mass organizations like unions, which tend to focus on immediate struggles and typically bring together people with a variety of viewpoints."8
The fact that few workers have any faith in a future that goes beyond the capitalism that they see around them undermines resistance to the present system. A credible vision of a self-managed society, a society beyond the various forms of oppression that now exist, and of a strategy for getting there, is important to inspiring commitment and action. The capacity to envision a future beyond what exists today, to articulate this to other people, and to point out a real-life path to make this a reality - this is one of the most valuable of leadership skills. This is the sort of "leadership" that a revolutionary minority could offer. There is no reason why a democratic, disciplined organization of anti-authoritarian activists cannot be advocates of a syndicalist strategy for revolution. MacSimoin is wrong in thinking that there is a contradiction between syndicalism and revolutionary political organization.
The Leninists believe that the minority who hold revolutionary, anti-capitalist views - the "vanguard" - should organize itself to take power within movements, to impose itself as the management hierarchy of the movement for social change. Its aim is to put itself in the position of using the mass movement to seize state power in a period of social crisis. It then aims to use state power to implement its program top-down through the state hierarchy. This conception implies a relationship between the "vanguard party" and the mass of working people that is, in essence, a techno-managerial class power relationship. It is no accident that the Marxist-Leninist revolutions consolidated a techno-managerialist mode of production.
In our view, the role of the anti-authoritarian activist minority is to help organize self-managed mass organizations, and nurture initiative and development of leadership skills among rank-and-file workers. The idea is not to monopolize movement expertise and decision-making, to accrue our own power over the movement, but to work against hierarchical trends in movements. The long-run aim is not for the revolutionary minority to "take power" on behalf of the class but for the mass of the populace to take power themselves, through institutions of mass self-management that they control.
As the class moves towards revolution, and develops itself into a counter-hegemonic force, the difference between "vanguard" and mass should tend to dissolve, as more of the rank and file develop the capacity and will to be an active factor in the process.

Political Power

When the working class, through its various mass organizations, moves to consolidate its control over the society, and to reconfigure the economic system and the rules of society, it cannot complete this process without creating a grassroots structure through which the society as a whole directly governs itself. The society requires institutions for setting and enforcing the basic rules, adjudicating disputes, and defeating any armed challenge. Any structure through which society sets and enforces the basic rules, and governs itself, is what I call a polity.
The state is a form of polity but it is not the only possible form of polity. The state is organized as a chain-of-command hierarchy analogous to private corporations. The state has at its disposal hierarchically controlled bodies of armed people to enforce its rules. This hierarchical structure separates the state from effective control by the mass of the population. This separation is needed for the state to perform its role in defending and promoting the interests of the dominant classes. The state's performance of this role explains why the state has been continually re-created through many changes in class society.
A society based on economic and social self-management requires an appropriate sort of polity to protect it. Such a polity would have to be based on direct, participatory democracy. For the working class to reconfigure the society, and gain direct empowerment for the mass of the population, political power must be seized. Thus I think it clear that a successful workers revolution requires that the mass of the population dismantle the existing state, and create new institutions of direct self-governance. Otherwise, how could the mass of the population control the society and protect the revolution?
It's true that Marxists talk of "taking power." But the Marxist concept usually means the hoisting of political party leaders into control of a state. Just because we reject that proposal this should not blind us to the alternative of the mass of the population gaining political power through their own grassroots institutions. Syndicalist strategy, says MacSimoin, "is apolitical, in the sense that they argue that all that is essential to make the revolution is for workers to seize the factories and the land. After that it believes that the state and all the other institutions of the ruling class will come toppling down. They do not accept that the working class must take political power."
I don't think syndicalism is committed to being against political organization or against the taking of political power by the mass of the people in a revolutionary process. Historian Richard Hyman offers a somewhat different characterization of traditional syndicalism as an emphasis on "spontaneous self-activity, local autonomy and independence from parties. Such independence did not, as was the case with 'non-political' unionism in many countries, imply a rejection of political objectives. Rather, revolutionary syndicalism implied a confidence in the insurrectionary potential of direct industrial action, a hostility to statist conceptions of socialism, and a suspicion that the stratagems and compromises of politicians would betray the revolutionary elan of militant trade unionists."9
Opposition to political parties, an electoral strategy, and of contesting for control of the state, is not the same thing as saying that no polity, no structure of society-wide governance, is needed to replace the state. However, it's true that "apoliticism" was interpreted by some people in the way that MacSimoin suggests (see below). I am not saying that we should simply ape traditional syndicalism; we should learn from mistakes of the past. However, this presupposes we have an accurate picture of what that past was.
Where we can agree with the WSM is that a confusion about power contributed to the defeat of the Spanish revolution. I see this as rooted in traditional anarchism. Anarchists have not always been consistent in recognizing that emancipation from oppression requires a structure of political power. Anarchists have sometimes put forward the idea that there could be a society without any society-wide institutions of self-rule or self-governance.10

Defeat in Spain

Since MacSimoin relies on the Spanish case, let us take a closer look. In July of 1936 the workers of the syndicalist CNT union federation defeated the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona (with significant help from the police). In the weeks following that victory they built their own self-managing union army and seized the means of production. They were thus in a position to consolidate the revolution by overthrowing the regional government in Catalonia.
After the end of the street-fighting in Barcelona, on July 21st, Mariano Vazquez, the regional secretary of the CNT, called a union conference to decide what to do. Apparently, Vazquez already favored accepting the offer of the province's president, Luis Companys, to set up an "Anti-fascist Militia Central Committee", to coordinate all the militias fighting the Spanish army. Such an action would accept the continued existence of the government. Revolutionary anarchists in the CNT were often in the practice of avoiding election to administrative positions. Their attitude was that they had constructed a union where the mass assemblies were the main decision-making body; why should it be important who holds the administrative posts?
But this is a mistake because, in a critical situation, the administration can skew decision-making. This is what happened in this case. Because the well-known anarchist activists didn't want the post of regional secretary, it was given to Mariano Vazquez, after he was recommended by Federica Montseny. Montseny was a writer; her father, Juan Montseny, had founded a large publishing cooperative, Ediciones Revista Blanca, which employed both Federica and another participant at the key July CNT meeting, Sinesio Garcia (who wrote under the pseudonym Abad Diego de Santillan).
Stuart Christie suggests that Vazquez invited his cronies in the Montseny circle, so these free-floating intellectuals were over-represented in the meeting that would decide how to respond to the offer from Companys. In his memoirs Juan Garcia Oliver refers to Montseny and her circle as "anti-syndicalist anarchists."11 At that meeting, some syndicalists within the CNT proposed to "push ahead with the social revolution, in a set of circumstances that had never seemed so promising." This group, which included Juan Garcia Oliver and the delegation from Bajo Llobregat - a blue-collar industrial area south of Barcelona - proposed to replace the regional government with a regional Defense Council, answerable to all the unions of the region, to defend the new social order and run a unified labor militia.
Clearly, they were proposing to create the beginnings of a new polity, controlled by the working class. They believed that an opening had been created for carrying forward the CNT's libertarian communist program. That program had been adopted by the CNT just two months before, at its Zaragosa Congress. It described the basic building blocks of a self-managed society as consisting of assemblies of workers in workplaces - workers councils - and assemblies in the neighborhoods and federations of these throughout cities and over regions and over the country as a whole.
The community assemblies would be the mechanism for consumer input and industries would be self-managed by industrial federations. Grassroots congresses at the regional and national level would set the basic rules. A framework that provides for the making of society-wide rules, imposes a particular economic structure, and provides an armed militia to defend that social order is clearly a polity. To create this political and economic structure would mean that the mass of the people would be taking power in society.
In those debates in the CNT in Barcelona in July of 1936, Federica Montseny and her circle argued against replacing the government with a defense council on the grounds that this would be an "anarchist dictatorship", and, unfortunately, they won that debate. The "anti-powerism" of the Montseny circle is rooted in the confusions of traditional anarchism. The CNT enrolled a majority of the workers of Catalonia and a Defense Council would have also given representation to the other unions.
So how is this a "dictatorship"? No doubt it would be necessary to "dictate" to the bosses what their fate would be. That's what a proletarian revolution does. The working class cannot emancipate itself from oppression if it doesn't take over the running of the society - and that means taking power. This was not the only argument that influenced the CNT decision to not overthrow the government.
Abad Diego de Santillan argued that they should leave a semblance of the official government in place so as to trick the Popular Front government into channeling some of Spain's gold reserves to Catalonia to support their militia columns. De Santillan appealed to fear and timidity, referring to potential intervention by the British fleet off the coast. In reality, De Santillan's stance was naive. The leaders in Madrid were well aware that the anarchists were the power behind the throne and refused the request for gold.
By failing to create a grassroots structure to unite the working class apart from the state in the heavily industrial region of Catalonia where they had the most power, the anarchists made their capitulation to the Republican state inevitable. The mass membership of the CNT union federation would insist on unity with the socialist unions in a life and death struggle against the fascist army. Was that going to be a unity of leaders through the Republican state as the Popular Front parties advocated, or worker unity through new grassroots institutions of self-governance?
By failing to replace the government with new institutions of worker political power in Catalonia, the anarchists would find themselves with no way to counter the tremendous pressure to go along with the Popular Front strategy. The debate over "taking power" or collaborating with the Popular Front government was hashed out again at a regional assembly of the anarcho-syndicalist unions of Catalonia at the end of August, 1936. Here again, Juan Garcia Oliver pressed for abolishing the regional government, replacing it with a workers council in which political parties would not be represented, only the mass union organizations. The choice for the unions was posed starkly, Collaborate with the government or take power, replacing the government?
A CNT historian, reporting on this debate, noted: "in fact, there was no question of a reversion to the old apolitical tradition, to the acracista (anti-power) ideas, which had been 'completely overwhelmed and overtaken by events, but which certain folk doggedly championed'".12
How would the defense council proposal have differed from the Bolshevik seizure of state power in Russia in October, 1917? In the Russian case, political party leaders ran a government cabinet that was not directly accountable to the mass workplace organizations. They had at their disposal an army and political police (Cheka) that were run in a top-down way, accountable to the leadership at the top. They appointed their own managers to run various industries.
On the other hand, the Defense Council proposal in Spain would have created a body that was supposed to be accountable to the mass workers organizations and delegate assemblies of these. Its armed force was a self-managing workers militia, run by elected committees and assemblies, created by and for the unions. The industries had been seized by the unions and were being self-managed by organizations the workers themselves had created. And, in any event, it was not proposed that the Defense Council would manage the economy.
Nonetheless, at the August union meeting the decision to not overthrow the government which had been made in July was re-affirmed by the CNT. At a national CNT conference during the summer of 1936, while the CNT of Catalonia was pursuing its course of government collaboration, the national CNT approved the idea of replacing the regional governments in Spain with regional Defense Councils, and proposed replacing the Popular Front government with a National Defense Council, made up of CNT and UGT representatives.
In order to be consistent with anti-authoritarian principles, the Defense Council would have had to be directly accountable to some sort of grassroots congress of local delegates. At the time, Largo Caballero, head of the UGT, vetoed this proposal. However, the CNT did build one regional Defense Council, in the rural region of Aragon. But failing to set up a regional workers council in Catalonia, where the revolution was strongest, greatly weakened the CNT's bargaining position. If they had overthrown the government in Catalonia, this would have put tremendous pressure on the socialist UGT union to go along with a similar strategy for the whole of Spain.
As it is, Caballero nearly decided to implement the CNT-UGT National Defense Council idea in February, 1937, to head off Stalinist power grabs. Later on in the Civil War, the Friends of Durruti group revived the call for a National Defense Council. The WSM presents this Friends of Durruti proposal as if it were a deviation from all that had gone before, a "learning from mistakes of the past", whereas in fact the Friends were calling for a return to original syndicalist principles and aims. They were reviving the perspective that Juan Garcia-Oliver and the CNT of Bajo Llobregat had articulated in July of 1936.
MacSimoin is of course right that we should learn from mistakes of the past. Traditional anarchism and syndicalism are not fully adequate guides; they had limits that we need to transcend. The confused idea that the taking of power by the mass organizations of the working class of Catalonia would have been a "dictatorship" is an example of such a mistake.
But what is worthy of being retained from syndicalism is the core insight that the working class needs to develop its own self-managing mass organizations to develop its own power within this society, to have a means to challenge the bosses for the control of the society. To create a society in which the mass of the population are directly empowered, directly in control, this process of self-management must first emerge and become entrenched in practices of self-management of struggles within capitalism.
A society without classes can only be constructed through the direct work of working people themselves, and this presupposes that they have developed their own self-managing movements.


We agree with the WSM that it is necessary for anti-authoritarian activists to organize themselves to "win the debates within the working class." The WSA is itself a political activist organization. We disagree with certain syndicalists who think unions are sufficient for social change.
On the other hand, I think that by over-emphasizing ideas, the WSM under-estimates the importance of collective action, widening solidarity, and self-organization in the development of working class consciousness. Although we would agree with the WSM in rejecting "apoliticism" as MacSimoin defines it, we believe that syndicalism need not be "apolitical" in that sense.
Second, I agree with the WSM that the failure of the CNT to overthrow the government of Catalonia when they had the opportunity was a major error that contributed to the defeat of the revolution. However, I do not believe that this failure was inherent to syndicalism. It is more accurate to say this came from the confusions of traditional anarchism about political power.
I think that the failure of the CNT of Catalonia to overthrow the government was partly due to the influence of certain intellectual "anti-power" anarchists as well as inadequate preparation - why had they not foreseen the need to form regional Defense Councils to unite the unions at their Zaragosa Congress just two months earlier? There were syndicalists present in the Spanish movement who understood the importance of taking power.
Third, although union bureaucracy is a roadblock to the development of class consciousness insofar as it gets in the way of collective action, syndicalism is not committed to saying this is the only factor. Another factor is the sectoralism of the American labor movement - the tendency for each union to consider narrowly the conditions in its own workplaces and not look to a broader alliance and program to deal with social issues that affect the working class in general.
Yet another factor is racism. The absence of a visible anti-capitalist political culture - alternative ideas - is part of the explanation as well.
Fourth, although I agree with the WSM that ideas that "tie workers to capitalism" are certainly an important part of the problem, I'd ask the question, Why do workers have ideas that "tie them to capitalism"? MacSimoin doesn't offer an adequate explanation of this fact. I suggest that the sense of power that workers have at a given point in time partly explains the salience that radical ideas will have for them. And this sense of power depends upon what is actually going on around them, including the level of solidarity and collective action, and the existence of organizations that workers can feel are theirs.

  • 1Quoted in Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 93
  • 2I believe that participatory economics offers a program for dissolving the power of the techno-managerial class. See my article "Participatory Economics and the Self-emancipation of the Working Class". This is my own view; WSA does not necessarily endorse participatory economics.
  • 3Dan Croteau's recent book Politics and the Class Divide provides a good look at this through the eyes of workers at a large mail facility where he works.
  • 4See my article The Italian Factory Occupations of 1920.
  • 5In the U.S.Anarcho-Syndicalist Review is a syndicalist group who advocate a program of forming "revolutionary unions," with a 100% anti-capitalist vision, in the U.S. right now. WSA's disagreement with that strategy is part of the long-standing disagreement between WSA and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review group.
  • 6Declining wages, breaking of unions and lengthening hours all have contributed to an increased level of discontent in the working class in the U.S. today. A number of labor activists think conditions are ripe for a new explosion of labor rebellion. See New Upsurge? by Dan Clausen.
  • 7See the WSM position paper on trade unions.
  • 8Frequently Asked Questions about Workers Solidarity Alliance.
  • 9Richard Hyman, Understanding European Trade Unionism, p. 23.
  • 10For example, Michael Taylor, Community, Anarchy, and Liberty.
  • 11Stuart Christie, We, the Anarchists, p. 104
  • 12Quoted in A. Skirda, Facing the Enemy, p. 157.



1 year 11 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 30, 2022

"Syndicalists hold that, in the words of Flora Tristan, "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."

Always wondered who was the first to articulate this stance, anyone know which of her works this is from?

R Totale

1 year 11 months ago

Submitted by R Totale on July 30, 2022

Good question, googling around a bit finds another Wetzel article:
When Marx drew up the statutes of the first International Workers Association in 1864, he included Flora Tristan’s slogan: “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves.”
And again, another Wetzel article saying that Tristan used it in 1843: https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/opening-comments-for-debate-with-socialist-perspective-representing-parecon-by-tom-wetzel/

And a third repeating the same claim: https://medium.com/thedialogues/what-is-anarcho-syndicalism-df374e71224c

And a review of a book about the Mexican revolution: https://dissidentvoice.org/2013/12/looking-back-at-the-mexican-revolution/
that mentions "Magon, employing Flora Tristan’s oft-cited adage (invariably misattributed to Karl Marx)"

Anarkismo has a short article about her from the Chilean anarchist press: https://www.anarkismo.net/article/27971 but that just says "she was the first to say that the proletariat must unite as a class and free itself, that is to say, rely on its own strength. It was an idea that Marx would later incorporate in the famous slogan of the First International: "the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves""
None of them directly cite anything by Tristan?


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on July 30, 2022

R Totale wrote: None of them directly cite anything by Tristan?

I think the reference might be to Tristan's 1843 The Workers' Union. There's an English edition of the work here. I haven't read it, but pages 37-38 seem to reference workers' self-emancipation: "Now the day has come when one must act, and it is up to you and only you to act in the interest of your own cause." It's sort of funny/annoying how authors repeat claims in their works without ever actually referencing the original source. Or authors will just reference each other without ever bothering to cite the original document. I'm not sure why Wetzel and others don't provide proper citations for stuff like this (which is kind of helpful any time one quotes/paraphrases someone else),

Wetzel wrote: Syndicalists hold that, in the words of Flora Tristan, "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."

I'd also be interested in who first employed the phrase, but then again it's not all that clever or politically interesting of an idea. Engels expressed the same idea of workers emancipating themselves prior to 1843. Among other sources, see for example Engels' article "The Internal Crises" appearing in the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842. In it he argues how English workers were being driven to revolution by their poverty. He also writes, "By its numbers, this class has become the most powerful in England, and woe betide the wealthy Englishmen when it becomes conscious of this fact." Is this not essentially expressing the same idea of workers liberating themselves?

Tristan was also not an anarchist, so it is sort of strange many anarchists like to invoke her (without properly citing her) with the sole purpose it seems of downplaying the contributions of Marx and Engels.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on July 30, 2022

Hm, after scanning the document a bit more, it doesn't seem there is much similarity between Tristan and the 1864 "Rules of the International." The closest Tristan comes to saying anything like the introductory words to the "Rules," with its references to the self-emancipation of the working class, is in places like I quoted above. Engels again said variations of the same thing prior to 1843, such as in the article appearing in the Rheinische Zeitung I mentioned above.

Not to diminish the significance of Tristan's work (e.g. in speaking on women's issues and women's emancipation), but I think one should also keep in mind that Tristan's appeal for workers' self-liberation was not for socialist/communist/anarchist ends. Take this passage from the translator, Beverly Livingston, in the introduction (xxiii):

Livingston wrote: Her challenge did not attempt to subvert private enterprise or deny the manufacturer's right to compete for profits, and she did not call for the total dismantling of the economic order; she simply and soundly demanded a fair share for the laboring poor.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 31, 2022

He also writes, "By its numbers, this class has become the most powerful in England, and woe betide the wealthy Englishmen when it becomes conscious of this fact." Is this not essentially expressing the same idea of workers liberating themselves?

Well that's one way of reading it, though if so we'd have to give the crown to Shelley since his poem about Peterloo says the same thing decades earlier.

It's also the common lament of the TUC.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 4, 2022

The AFAQ makes the same claim here,

AFAQ wrote: Marx’s use of the famous expression — “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself” — dates from 1865, 17 years after Proudhon’s comment that “the proletariat must emancipate itself.” Moreover, as Libertarian Marxist Paul Mattick pointed out, Marx was not even the first person to use the expression “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself” as Flora Tristan used it in 1843. [Marx and Keynes, p. 333]

Besides giving the incorrect date for the 1864 "Rules of the International," what the author probably meant was that Tristan wrote (in French) something similar to the "Rules" in her 1843 The Workers' Union; she did not use the exact same expression found in the "Rules" regarding workers' self-emancipation. The author omits any discussion of what Tristan might have actually meant when writing about workers acting in their own interests. Quotation marks are also usually reserved for capturing things people actually said, rather than things one wishes they had said (the same goes for Wetzel, who even went as far as saying "in the words of Flora Tristan"). In any case, the AFAQ cites Paul Mattick's 1971 Marx and Keynes. Mattick in his work is just quoting Max Rubel's "Reflections on Utopia and Revolution" in the anthology Socialist Humanism and doesn't even comment on Tristan herself. Rubel writes (216),

Rubel wrote: What Marx—and before him, in 1843, Flora Tristan—thus formulated in one single proposition, namely, that 'The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself,' remains the implicit postulate of all genuine socialist thought.

Nowhere in the quote does Rubel say that Tristan employed the expression found in the 1864 "Rules."

Rubel wrote more extensively on Tristan and Marx in a 1946 article appearing in the magazine La Nef entitled "Flora Tristan et Karl Marx." He expands on Tristan's actual thought in that text, but he again never claims that Tristan used the expression found in the 1864 "Rules." Rubel's actual argument is that Tristan was the first to argue for workers' self-emancipation and to formulate the idea of a universal workers' union/organization prior to the International Workingmen's Association (neither of which I agree with). It's a pretty strange argument that Tristan somehow "came up" with the idea of workers emancipating themselves. It also ignores what Tristan actually meant when writing about workers acting in their own interests, which was in no sense anti-capitalist as we see from the Livingston quote above.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by syndicalist on August 5, 2022

Tom's new blog......https://overcomingcapitalism.info ......... and his new book "Overcoming Capitalism - Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century"........ https://www.akpress.org/overcoming-capitalism.html


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 6, 2022

It's a pretty strange argument that Tristan somehow "came up" with the idea of workers emancipating themselves.

An argument that doesn't appear to exist. From what Wetzel's said and what you keep digging up Tristan is credited with being the first socialist to make a statement, and some have pointed out that this quotation is often attributed to the wrong person.

As regards your rules confusion, I don't understand where you're getting this from. I can see no one claiming a connection to the rules beyond the incorporation of the idea first promoted by Tristan, except for yourself in order to argue against it.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 6, 2022

Reddebrek wrote: From what Wetzel's said and what you keep digging up Tristan is credited with being the first socialist to make a statement, and some have pointed out that this quotation is often attributed to the wrong person.

What quotation is attributed to the wrong person? Are you again suggesting that the phrase in the 1864 “Rules” is misattributed to Marx when Tristan in fact said it first? Ok, then produce the exact source where Tristan says what is being attributed to her (whether a translation or otherwise). Wetzel, the AFAQ, and others can’t just say stuff like “in the words of Flora Tristan” or “Flora Tristan’s expression” without properly citing her or pointing to the place where she actually says what is being ascribed to her; that’s intellectually dishonest behavior and is not how quoting people works (and Dr Wetzel should know better). Would you not agree?

I also wouldn’t have said Rubel argued that Tristan “came up” with the idea of workers emancipating themselves if he hadn’t in fact argued just that. It’s a claim others have repeated with the added vulgarization that Tristan also supposedly said exactly what is in the 1864 “Rules” regarding the self-emancipation of the working class. Here’s a rough (Google) translation of the first sentence of Rubel’s “Flora Tristan et Karl Marx,”

Rubel wrote: The self-emancipation of the modern proletariat—a central theme of the teaching of Marx and Engels—was first proclaimed a hundred years ago in the form of a new gospel by a woman whose name is today ignored by the vast majority of all those who claim to militate for the same cause.

Rubel is clearly arguing throughout his text exactly what I said he was, and as I said it’s slightly strange to argue that Tristan (or Proudhon, as the AFAQ alludes to) “came up” with the idea of workers emancipating themselves. It is also unfortunate that nobody is interested in Tristan’s thought itself (except Rubel to some extent) or what she might have actually meant when she said, “it is up to you [workers] and only you to act in the interest of your own cause” (37-38). People seem more concerned with using Tristan merely as a means of trivializing the contributions of Marx and Engels, when there is nothing particularly interesting or original about the introductory words to the “Rules" to begin with (you could indeed point to the much earlier writings of Shelley or Engels).


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 6, 2022

As far as I can tell you're the one who brought Rubel and have done so after you went down this strange blind alley.

As for the quote, why don't you read the workers union? The text repeatedly argues that concept at multiple points its the key message of the work.

And will you please give this conspiracy theory a rest. Why on earth are you so offended that people give proper credit to people outside of your personal canon?

Ffs Marx and Engels acknowledged they were aware of her work in Holy Family and the IWMA was founded by the French trade union movement who were avid readers of her work.

While looking for her other works I discovered the english translations are done by marxists keen to stress her relevance.

Give it a rest and find yourself some new windmills to tilt at.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 6, 2022

As for the quote, why don't you read the workers union? The text repeatedly argues that concept at multiple points its the key message of the work.

Right, but it is not an issue of Tristan arguing for workers acting in their own interests, but of people claiming she said something that she actually didn't (i.e. the introductory words to the 1864 "Rules"). You and others are also ignoring what Tristan actually meant when she wrote about workers acting in their own interests, which as the Livingston quote above shows has little in common with socialist/communist/anarchist objectives. If you don't think it is an issue that people say things like "in the words of Flora Tristan" without ever actually citing her, then there isn't much more to discuss/shout about here. I thought at least a "thank you" would have been in order for finding the source you were inquiring about, but I guess not!


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by Khawaga on August 9, 2022

Marx heavily borrowed from everyone, that he also borrowed that quote wouldn't be surprising. But discussing whether Marx said or someone else before is sort of like the scholastics debating how many angels could fit on on a pinhead: it's kinda pointless.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 10, 2022

The self-emancipation phrase in the 1864 "Rules" is not much of a noteworthy quote to begin with; people only seem to be fond of invoking Tristan (without ever actually reading her works or properly citing her—it's mostly just people repeating each other or a vulgarized version of Rubel) if they want to trivialize the contributions of Marx and Engels. That is not to suggest that Marx and Engels did not borrow from others (of course they did—Marx borrowed his ideas on reproduction from the French Physiocrats, etc.), but in the case of Marx "stealing a phrase from Tristan," this is simply not supported by any of the sources. The closest Tristan comes to saying anything like the introductory words to the 1864 "Rules" is here (37-38):

Tristan wrote: Only one thing remains to be done: to act by virtue of the rights inscribed in the Charter [Constitutional Charter of 1814].

Now the day has come when one must act, and it is up to you and only you to act in the interest of your own cause."

What Tristan actually meant by workers "acting in the interest of their own cause" was contributing to the construction of her "Workers' Union palaces." Tristan's workers' palaces were partly inspired by the ideas of the utopian socialist Fourier, and particularly his ideas of a phalanstery (a community of workers living together). Tristan's workers' palaces were to serve as shelters for children, the injured/sick, and elderly (39):

Tristan wrote: I come to you [workers] to propose a general union among working men and women, regardless of trade, who reside in the same region—a union which would have as its goal the consolidation of the working class and the construction of several establishments (Workers' Union palaces), distributed evenly throughout France. Children of both sexes six to eighteen would be raised there; and sick or disabled workers as well as the elderly would be admitted.

Tristan herself was not a revolutionary socialist/communist/anarchist (you could call her a utopian socialist if you want) and was more concerned with issues such as the "dignity of labor" and guaranteed work than a society oriented towards production for need; she was a reformer, or Christian humanitarian, who saw herself as the Christ-like savior of the working class (as evidenced by her journal entries while touring France to promote her book among workers; see Livingston's introduction p. xv-xvi). One could still appreciate Tristan's sympathy for workers and her concern for women, but her ideas do not really have much in common with workers' emancipation, especially in the sense of people who tend to invoke her. I'm not sure if medieval theologians ever debated angels on pinheads, but correcting others' misconceptions, such that Marx stole Tristan's expression (or that Tristan was ever interested in workers' self-emancipation from the yoke of capital), does seem kind of useful.