2. Radical currents in the workers' movement

Submitted by Steven. on December 15, 2012


This chapter will introduce three radical currents from the historical workers’ movement. First we will look at anarchism, the name given to the anti-state socialists in the European workers’ movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. Anarchism, as a political doctrine, opposed itself to all statist politics, whether parliamentary or ‘revolutionary’, instead placing its emphasis on human capacities for voluntary co-operation, mutual aid and working class direct action. Second, we will encounter syndicalism. Emerging in France, the syndicalist movement of rank and file controlled, radical unions spread to many countries taking new forms in different conditions. We will focus on the French CGT, the North American IWW and the syndicalist currents in the workers’ movement in Britain. In all cases, working class direct action was the watchword of the syndicalists who, often under anarchist influence, formed unions based on the shared economic interests of workers. Finally, we will look at council communism, a radical Marxist current which broke with orthodoxies such as the necessity of the Party and the capture of state power. The council communists drew some very similar conclusions to many anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, but we will also explore some important differences.

Socialism without the state: Anarchism

Anarchism has its origins in the working class and socialist movements of Europe in the 19th century.25 It was a major force in the ‘First International’, an alliance of socialist organisations and unions which existed between 1864 and 1876. When that organisation split between pro-state socialists (who became known as Marxists and associated with the colour red) and anti-state socialists (who became known as anarchists and associated with the colour black), the German statesman Otto von Bismarck remarked that “Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!”

Anarchism, covering all the anti-state socialists, took numerous forms. It is often said the three main currents are mutualism (associated with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), collectivism (associated with Mikhail Bakunin) and communism (associated with Ericco Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin). In reality, there was considerable overlap and evolution, as ideas developed in conjunction with the movement. The ideas of mutualism, a self-managed market economy probably had their greatest influence on the co-operative movement. Anarchist collectivism proposed expropriation of private property to be owned communally and operated under worker self-management, with money abolished and replaced by some form of labour notes, essentially IOUs for work done. Collectivism was a significant influence on Spanish anarcho-syndicalism in the 1920s and 30s although its modern influence has waned.

The third school, that to which the anarcho-syndicalist IWA belongs, is anarchist or libertarian communism. The origins of anarchist communism are most often credited to ‘the anarchist Prince’ Peter Kropotkin, although he was largely taking up and elaborating ideas that originated in the Italian section of the First International. Like collectivism, anarchist communism is for worker self-management and the abolition of private property, but  goes further in advocating the abolition of market exchange and money to be replaced by production and distribution according to the principle of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to needs.’

In all its incarnations, anarchism was never simply ‘anti-state’, but has always been the anti-state wing of the socialist movement. Anarchist collectivism was firmly in the camp of the class struggle, as its leading proponent Mikhail Bakunin was a prominent member of the First International, and had great influence on the more libertarian sections (which later fed into the development of anarcho-syndicalism).

In the case of anarchist communism, however, there was sometimes less emphasis on the class struggle and more on the human capacity for mutual aid and voluntary co-operation, which Kropotkin had set out at length as an important factor of evolution.26 Thus, anarchist communism often had a more humanist bent and the tradition put varying emphasis on the class struggle as either a progressive or regressive force:

“[T]he theoreticians of anarcho-communism (Peter Kropotkin, Ericco Malatesta, and others) maintained that the roots of social development lie in progress of the ethical concepts of humanity; that capitalism is a regressive system since it undermines the intrinsic social nature of humanity based on mutual aid; and that the division of humanity into warring classes plays a reactionary role, retarding the self-realization of the human personality”27

For this reason, early anarchist communism did not focus primarily on the labour movement. In 1907, there was an important debate between Pierre Monatte and Ericco Malatesta at the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Monatte argued for a neutral syndicalism that was not political, and not even anarchist, on the grounds that workers’ economic conditions gave them “identical interests”, so that political “differences of opinion, often subtle and artificial, fall into the background in the syndicate, enabling agreement.”28 In contrast, Malatesta had argued that:

“The basic error of Monatte and of all revolutionary syndicalists, in my opinion, derives from an overly simplistic conception of class struggle. It is a conception whereby the economic interests of all workers – the working class – are held to be equal (…) The reality is very different, in my view (…) there are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term, because there are no class interests. There exists competition and struggle within the working ‘class’, just as there does amongst the bourgeoisie.”29

Monatte and Malatesta agreed that syndicalism was an economic movement, but for Malatesta this wasn’t sufficient, and must be supplemented by separate anarchist political organisations. This separation was most clearly articulated in his 1925 article ‘Syndicalism and anarchism.'30  In it, he makes the case for syndicalist unions which unite all workers on an economic basis, and separate political, anarchist organisations of varying kinds which operate both inside and outside the unions. Malatesta by no means denied the importance of the labour movement. On the contrary, he insisted that “everyone, or almost everyone, is in agreement on the usefulness and the need for the anarchists to take an active part in the labour movement and to be its supporters and promoters.”

Syndicalist unions, he argued, were often founded on anarchist principles. However, they either proved ineffective and thus remained small, barely functioning as unions at all, or they won their initial battles, and these victories attracted more workers into their ranks, which enabled them to win more battles and attract more workers and so on. The problem with this, Malatesta diagnosed, was that there was no reason to think these workers, who were attracted by the union’s success in winning gains for workers, shared the anarchist principles upon which the union was founded.

“For a union to serve its own ends and at the same time act as a means of education and ground for propaganda aimed at radical social change, it needs to gather together all workers – or at least those workers who look to an improvement of their conditions – and to be able to put up some resistance to the bosses. Can it possibly wait for all the workers to become anarchists before inviting them to organise themselves and before admitting them into the organisation?”

Thus he held that “syndicalism (by which I mean the practical variety and not the theoretical sort, which everyone tailors to their own shape) is by nature reformist” and that “pure anarchism cannot be a practical solution while people are forced to deal with bosses and with authority.” For that reason he argued for a separation of the necessarily reformist, economic, syndicalist unions from the various political anarchist organisations which should propagandise revolutionary anarchist ideas within them. For Malatesta, the role of anarchists was not to make the unions more anarchist, but to argue within them for anarchist tactics while keeping them open to all workers who wanted to fight to improve their conditions, regardless of political affiliation. Meanwhile, the anarchists should also fight within the union to keep it neutral from political parties. “If the survival of the organisation and the needs and wishes of the organised make it really necessary to compromise and enter into muddied negotiations with authority and the employers, so be it. But let it be the responsibility of others, not the anarchists.”

For Malatesta, therefore, any concession or negotiation under capitalism was reformist, and so it was important for anarchists to remain “pure”, leaving this dirty business to others. This approach would become known as ‘dual organisationalism’, a current of anarchism that holds that mass, class organisations such as unions need a specific political organisation operating within them. But not all dual organisationalists think alike. While Malatesta saw the role of anarchists as keeping themselves pure on political lines and keeping unions organised along economic lines, independent of political ideas, others sought to use political organisation as a means to politicise economic associations – to ‘anarchise’ syndicalist unions.

This brings us to the ‘Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists.’ This text was published in 1926 by the Dielo Truda group, who were anarchists in exile after the Communist Party consolidation of power in the young and misnamed Soviet Union. Drawing on their experiences of the struggle against both capitalism and Bolshevism, they set out a template for anarchist organisation which remains influential among anarchists today.

First of all, the Platform firmly espouses anarchist communism as its goal, and situates this firmly within the class struggle. The document outlines the necessity for violent social revolution and the anarchist opposition to all states including democratic ones. In terms of their attitude to unions, syndicalist and mainstream, the Platform argues that they can have no ideology of their own and therefore any union “always reflects the ideologies of a range of political groupings, notably of those most intensively at work within its ranks.”31 The necessity is therefore for anarchists to organise themselves politically and work intensely both inside the unions to ‘anarchise’ them and outside them to exert a similar influence in other spheres. Thus, the Platform is supportive of anarcho-syndicalism as “a step forward”, but argues that syndicalist unions only become or remain anarcho-syndicalist because of the vigorous political organisation of anarchists within their ranks to keep them that way, and “to prevent any slide towards opportunism.”32

Thus ‘platformists’, as those influenced by the Platform are colloquially known, are also dual organisationists. But rather than keeping the economic organisation apolitical, the task of the political organisation is to politicise it with anarchism. There are four famous organisational principles set out to define the basis of the political organisation which should carry out this task: theoretical unity; tactical unity; collective responsibility and federalism.33 The Platform wagers that thusly organised, anarchists will be able to out organise state socialist parties within the trade unions, soviets and other organs of the working class, and so ensure the working class movement develops in an anarchist direction and the revolution develops in the direction of libertarian communism and not state socialism.

The advocacy of a tight, unified and disciplined political organisation reminded many anarchists at the time of a political party, and the authors of the Platform were labelled ‘anarcho-Bolshevik’ in some quarters. This criticism strikes us as unfair. If one wants to organise an anarchist political organisation, the principles set out in the Platform make perfect sense in terms of combining unity of action with internal democracy and thus combining effective political organisation with anarchist principles. From an anarcho-syndicalist point of view the problems lie elsewhere. For instance, in the next section we will see how the slide of certain syndicalist unions into reformism was not because of the lack of political organisation within their ranks, but rather a function of the very ‘apolitical’ nature the Platform affirms.

Thus platformists can also be anarcho-syndicalists, but anarcho-syndicalists are not necessarily platformists. Certainly to anarcho-syndicalist eyes, the Platform places too much emphasis on the ability of political organisations to combat the material contradictions which arise from unions organising under capitalism, principally the development and domination of the representative function over the associational one. As anarcho-syndicalists, we of course believe these contradictions can be successfully navigated in a way consistent with our revolutionary principles. But before we can elaborate, we must first examine some of these contradictions in the case of syndicalism, from which anarcho-syndicalism has evolved.


Unions without bureaucrats: Syndicalism

The workers’ movement in France had faced severe repression in the aftermath of the 1871 Paris Commune. Radical tendencies were forced underground, and it was in this period that the stereotype of the anarchist bomb thrower emerged, as some anarchists turned away from the labour movement towards ‘propaganda by the deed’: assassinations and bombings against the rich. However, by the late 19th century, there was something of a regrouping of the workers’ movement with the development of an anarchist influenced form of trade unionism – revolutionary syndicalism. Rudolf Rocker writes that this tendency “developed quite spontaneously within the French working class as a reaction against political Socialism, the cleavages in which for a long time permitted no unified trade union movement.”34

This movement had its origins in a coming together of existing unions and the ‘bourses du travail’, mutual aid schemes including “job placement, unemployment benefits, relocation aid, and aid for those injured on the job”, as well as cultural, educational and propaganda services and some of the union functions of organising strikes.35 Anarchist involvement was significant in the bourses and, as Rocker notes, the anarchist message of class unity gained popularity in the face of a political socialist movement wrought with sectarian divisions. French revolutionary syndicalism proposed this unity be brought about through a general union for workers. That union was the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), founded in 1895. In its early days, the union was under heavy anarchist influence, and elected a series of anarchist and non-party socialist general secretaries, including Victor Griffuelhes. Paul Mason writes that:

“In the space of a decade Griffuelhes had created a superbly effective form of trade unionism; with minimal dues-paying and bureaucracy the militant workers could, every so often, unleash a lean, mean striking machine. What is more, they did it not just in an atmosphere of repression but of stolid refusal to negotiate; only in the years 1905 and 1906 did the number of strikes ended by negotiation rise above 10%. Nine out of ten strikes finished without any formal contract across the table: either you lost and went back to work or, as with Haviland, the boss opened the factory gates and upped the wages. Sixty percent ended this way, with victory to the unions.”36

By its very nature as a general union, the CGT was open to all workers. Consequently “the CGT was not composed exclusively of revolutionary trade unions, certainly half of its members were of reformist tendency and had only joined the CGT because they recognised that the dependence of the trade unions on the political parties was a misfortune for the movement.”37 If we ask why reformists were relatively weak, we need only note the ruling class’ preference for repression and refusal to negotiate, which limited the space for reformist unionism and class collaboration. Social partnership takes two, and the bosses weren’t playing… at first at least.

As a result, revolutionary ideas held great sway within the ranks of the CGT. These were most clearly articulated in the Charter of Amiens in 1906, and in the writings of its leading theoretician, Emile Pouget (to which we will return in the following chapter). The Amiens Charter was a clear statement of the CGT’s revolutionary syndicalism.38 The Charter espoused a revolutionary programme, but also enshrined “political neutrality”, understood as standing outside all political schools and parties but not opposed to them, leaving political party allegiance (or lack of) to the conscience of individual members. “The Charter served to minimize political dissension in the unions, which were to focus attention exclusively on the economic struggle.”39 Against the political parties, the CGT defined itself as an economic organisation which grouped “together all workers conscious of the fight to be carried out for the disappearance of wage labour and of employers.” In doing so, it made the ‘revolutionary’ in ‘revolutionary syndicalism’ a matter of internal democracy. So long as revolutionaries formed a majority, the union espoused a revolutionary perspective and pursued uncompromising class conflict and social change via direct action methods.

But in the early 20th century, bosses and the state began to react to the gains of the CGT with a more conciliatory attitude. This increased the space for reformists to operate, as class collaboration could be seen to bear fruit. By 1909, the growth of the union had put the revolutionaries in the minority (the CGT grew from 100,000 members in 1902 to 700,000 in 1912, out of a population of 7 million). Victor Griffuelhes resigned as general secretary amidst machinations against him, and Émile Pouget left the union, disillusioned. The slide into class collaboration, reformism and bureaucratisation was crowned by the CGT’s support for the national war effort in 1914. This was the most decisive break with its revolutionary, internationalist origins. Although revolutionaries remained inside the CGT to try and pursue an anti-militarist agenda, following the First World War it increasingly fell under the sway of political parties, leading to a series of splits as revolutionaries and others left the organisation. The CGT still exists today, and even maintains elements of the Amiens Charter in the constitutions of many of its member unions. But in practice it has become almost indistinguishable from other modern trade union federations, with all the pitfalls that implies

As the CGT grew, syndicalist ideas were also taking root amongst the working class in North America. The IWW was founded in 1905 amidst violent class conflict. “Few strikes took place without loss of life. The resulting bitterness had made the prospect of fundamental change appealing to most workers.”40 Much like the CGT, it espoused a revolutionary intent and oriented itself to the whole working class, not just particular crafts or trades. They called this model ‘industrial unionism’, where all the workers in one industry, whatever their job, belonged to the same industrial union, and in turn these industrial unions all belonged to the ‘One Big Union’ of the IWW. At the time only a minority of workers were organised, and the IWW set out to 'organise the unorganised'. From its very beginnings, the IWW was also a racially mixed union at a time of widespread segregation. ‘Big Bill’ Haywood issued a statement of intent at the founding conference, declaring that “we are here today to confederate the workers…into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.”41

On the participants at the founding conference, historian Patrick Renshaw writes that they were not representative of the working class as a whole, but rather the radical elements of it.

“Most of them came from unions that, for one reason or another, were at loggerheads with the AF of L [American Federation of Labour]. They were all radicals, and most of the leading personalities had been influenced by socialism of varying kinds, though this was often overlaid with syndicalism or anarchism. They shared a common conviction that the craft form of unionism, represented by the AF of L, should be replaced by industrial organisation.”42

Consequently, the IWW represented an uneasy truce between militant unionists, anarchists, syndicalists and party socialists, with Marxism a major influence (much of their famous preamble paraphrases passages from Marx43).

“Tensions between revolutionaries and reformers manifested itself in countless disagreements over tactics. The most bitter of these within the ranks of the IWW itself involved those who urged the IWW to have a political arm and those who argued that the basic power of workers was at the point of production.”44

The basic fault line was between those who wished for the IWW to be an economic organisation linked to a separate political wing, and those who argued for direct industrial action as the means of social and political change. The most notable of the former tendency was Daniel DeLeon of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), who wanted the IWW’s industrial muscle to back the party’s electoral ambitions. Opposing this view were the various shades of direct actionists, who argued that the political aims of the union, enshrined in the preamble as including “the abolition of the wage system”, were best pursued on the industrial front and thus that the IWW was both a political and an economic organisation at the same time.45 This battle was settled in favour of the direct actionists in 1908, with the expulsion of the DeLeonists. Subsequently, the IWW engaged in a series of high profile free speech fights, confirming this attitude to pursuing political and social goals through direct action rather than recourse to party politics.

The Wobblies, as they were known, grew in size and reputation off the back of several high profile struggles, most notably the aforementioned free speech fights and the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, where the IWW had only a few hundred members but exerted great influence. But they found that membership tended to swell dramatically with struggles, and then ebb away. It’s been said that “many a worker who did not carry the red membership card or had kept up dues payments was still to be counted a Wobbly.”46 The IWW was opposed on principle to the kind of incentives for member retention pursued by more mainstream unions, such as health or insurance benefits, and instead opted to deploy a job delegate system. This entailed travelling organisers authorised to collect dues and form union locals amongst the highly mobile, casual workforce of the early 20th century United States. Consequently, “a local could exist in the hat or satchel of a mobile delegate.”47

This was an innovative model and one which refused to succumb to the temptation to stabilise membership against the ebbs and flows of struggle with a host of member services. But it also brings to the fore a dual meaning of the term ‘One Big Union’. On the one hand, this meant ‘One Big Union’ as opposed to ‘many sectional unions’. This conception was perfectly compatible with the ever shifting membership of the IWW, and in fact made sense as casual workers could simply transfer from one industrial union to another within the IWW if they changed industries. However, the other interpretation was that ‘One Big Union’ meant all, or at least a substantial proportion of, workers needed to be brought into the ranks of the union for the purposes of a revolutionary general strike and the transition to industrial democracy:

“[The] industrial unions would fight for gains within the existing system until the IWW was strong enough to call a general strike that would bring all economic activity to a standstill. The condition for returning to work would be the substitution of industrial unions for all business enterprises and governmental agencies. The means of production would then be run by the unions to satisfy social needs rather than private profit.”48

The extent to which this was a literal aspiration or a revolutionary myth varies with the Wobbly. Some ‘Wobs’ were unaware of the revolutionary aspect of the IWW when they joined,49 and the reality is that both interpretations coexisted within the IWW.50 What is clear is that the US government took the revolutionary threat of the IWW seriously enough to launch a brutal wave of repression. Between 1916 and 1918, dues paying membership soared from 60,000 to 100,000, with influence extending far further than those numbers alone. This also gave the Wobblies a significant cultural influence on the wider working class. In 1917, using damage to war production as the pretext, over 150 leading Wobblies were arrested, tried on spurious charges and given long prison sentences. Union halls were raided by armed vigilantes and shoot outs ensued. Of course, only the Wobblies were arrested and sentenced to long jail terms, or simply lynched, as in the case of Wesley Everest.51 The repression broke the IWW as a serious force, and the apparent ‘success’ of the Communist Party in Russia led to a resurgent Communist influence which eventually split the declining organisation in two in 1924.

After a period of two rival IWWs (who at times fought in the streets for control of the HQ), the much weakened official IWW continued through the 1920s and 30s under increased anarchist influence, but as an increasingly fragmented and marginal force (though as late as 1936, the IWW on the Philadelphia docks had the power to prevent a ship leaving with munitions for the Spanish fascists52). It survived through the post-war period and remains active today.53

Finally, we turn to British syndicalism. The British context was somewhat different to elsewhere as, by the early 20th century, Britain had a mature industrial economy and a well established trade union movement which was soon to gain a parliamentary wing through the Labour Party. Consequently, the influence of French revolutionary syndicalism and American industrial unionism led to a different kind of syndicalist movement. Whereas French and American syndicalists (and others) had to endure harsh repression, in Britain radical workers faced a different problem:

“Instead of undue repression, it was increasingly agreed [by the ruling class] that trade union demands could be more effectively diffused by bargaining and in particular by utilising union officials as a mediating influence between labour and capital.”54

Thus British syndicalism emerged as a rank and file reaction against the recuperation of the existing labour movement into a mediating, representative role. In a sense, it was a rebellion of the associational function of unions against the representative one. Its idea of unionism was ‘the workers united’ as opposed to the bureaucratic apparatus of paid officials, legalism and so on, which mediated this collective power. It was also fuelled by the failings of the trade unions and the parliamentary socialists to defend workers’ living conditions, as falling real wages, increasing unemployment, and deskilling squeezed the working class. The great strategic debate in British syndicalism was between ‘dual unionism’ – setting up independent revolutionary unions like in France or America – and ‘boring from within’ – building a rank and file movement which could take independent action as well as push to reform the existing bureaucratic unions in a syndicalist direction. In Britain, probably in large part because trade union membership was so much higher than elsewhere, the latter tendency won out.55

This tendency was exemplified by the prominent organiser Tom Mann, who had played a leading role in the 1889 London Dock strike. Mann had emigrated to Australia to pursue electoral projects but became disillusioned with the Labour Party and what he saw as the corrupting effects of government, as well as the sectional and divisive nature of the existing trade unions. He saw industrial unionism as the answer. In 1910 he visited French syndicalists and returned to England a convert. However, rather than set up new revolutionary unions, Mann proposed to reform the existing ones from within:

“I was thoroughly convinced that the economic struggle would ultimately be conducted through the trade unions; (…) that however reactionary the unions might be at the hour, the only sensible policy would be to recognise them as the proper channels through which, sooner or later, the working class would have to function. So we declined to be identified with any policy that aimed at injuring the unions, but on the contrary, worked with might and main within their ranks to throw them on the right lines.”56

Consequently, syndicalism in Britain did not take the form of separate revolutionary unions, but a radical rank and file presence in the existing trade unions. Numerically, syndicalists were a small minority, but the great labour unrest of 1910-1914 created an unparalleled platform for their ideas, and their influence, particularly via the shop stewards’ movement, extended far beyond their own ranks. Indeed:

“The facts that neither syndicalists nor syndicalism caused the labour unrest, and that in any event there just were not all that many syndicalists in Britain, (…) have forced historians to make the awkward but perhaps unavoidable distinction between syndicalism proper, of which there was little, and a syndicalist mood and atmosphere, for which a stronger case can be made.”57

Consequently, British syndicalism was less a coherent, organised force than a loose network of different tendencies (anarcho-syndicalists, militant shop stewards, socialists…) whose influence extended far beyond its limited numbers. The only formally organised groups were small propaganda groups like the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL). As a result, British syndicalism operated more as a culture of direct action amongst the working class than an organised alternative to the TUC unions. Indeed, as Mann’s quote suggests, there was often a surprisingly pro-TUC attitude insofar as syndicalists felt they could fill the unions with militant workers and reform them in a syndicalist, industrial unionist direction.58 This proved naïve, and alongside repression (most famously in the Syndicalist Trials),59 “as important as the attack, isolation and defeat of syndicalism, was the fact that it was also partially co-opted.”60 As some trade unions merged into industrial ones, syndicalists became sucked into union reform activities which took their energies away from the shop floor. In this process, much of the radical political content was lost in favour of changes to the organisational structure of the unions.

The syndicalist movement took different forms under different conditions. Everywhere it was more than just a union but also a wider culture within the working class; “many workers regarded themselves as members without paying dues.”61  Everywhere it was characterised by an advocacy of class militancy, unity and direct action. The main strategic divide was between ‘dual unionism’ and ‘boring from within’, with the latter approach being favoured where unionisation levels were already high through the established trade unions. Interestingly, in light of the renewed wave of casualisation under neoliberalism:

“[I]n the occupational composition of syndicalist movements two categories of workers were strongly represented. To the first category belonged casual, seasonal or project labourers, whose working lives were characterised by forms of discontinuity: by episodic work periods, by frequent changes of employer, and often of work site and sometimes of geographic locale as well.”62

The second category is the structurally powerful miners and industrial workers, who perhaps make up the more enduring stereotype of union militancy. But it seems important today to note that syndicalism once thrived amongst casualised workers as well as more stable workforces.

In terms of the political content of syndicalism, Marcel van der Linden and Wayne Thorpe write:

“The ultimate ends of the syndicalist agenda were undeniably political: the abolition of the capitalist economic and political system, the establishment of a collectivist society structured on labour’s economic associations, and the transfer of decision making and administration to the producers.”

While many trade unions pay lip service to these same goals, what distinguishes syndicalism is its direct action methods, highly democratic structures and minimal bureaucracy. And yet, these political goals were to be pursued by purely economic or ‘apolitical’ organisations. In many cases, were they not smashed, this opened the door to creeping reformism, co-option by political parties or the existing trade unions, and/or outright class collaboration. The CGT’s degeneration from a fighting workers’ association to a recruiting sergeant for imperialist war is the most striking example.63 This tendency would seem to confirm Malatesta’s scepticism. But as we will see, this is only partly the case. Despite its shortcomings, the syndicalist tradition is a rich and diverse one, to which anarcho-syndicalism belongs and owes much. We will pick this up in the following chapter.

Marxism without a Party? Council communism

Council communism emerged in the early 20th century as a dissident current within Marxism, particularly in the Netherlands and Germany. Contrary to what the name might suggest, what distinguishes council communism from other traditions is not advocacy of workers’ councils. Anarchists, syndicalists, anarcho-syndicalists and even Leninists favour a council system in some form. Rather, the ‘council’ serves to distinguish the council communists from the party communists on a question central to Marxist revolutionary theory: who should exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Communist Party or the workers’ councils?

“State socialism is not control of the means of production by the workers, but control by the organs of the state. If it is democratic at the same time, this means that workers themselves may select their masters. By contrast direct control of production by workers means that the employees direct the enterprises and construct the higher and central organisations from below. This is what is called the system of workers councils.”64

This is not to say the council communists abandoned political parties altogether. The most important of these was the German Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD), formed in 1920 when they were expelled from the Communist Party.65 The KAPD styled itself as a different kind of political party, which would not seek power but serve as the bearer of ‘communist consciousness’, in parallel to the factory organisations of the General Workers’ Union of Germany (AAUD), which had been formed by workers breaking with the trade unions during unofficial strikes.66 The AAUD itself adopted a revolutionary programme, including a hostility to political parties, with the exception of the KAPD.67 The KAPD and the AAUD therefore formed the political and economic wings of the council communist movement respectively:

“The idea behind the relationship of the KAPD to the AAUD was that the factory organisations, operating as workers’ councils for the social [re]organisation of production following the revolution, were to form the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat. However they could only fulfil this function in so far as those participating in them had a revolutionary and political conception of their tasks and functions – a communist consciousness. In so far as this was not the case – the KAPD was conceived of as the separate organisation of conscious communists, whose role was to promote communist perspectives and goals, through its own independent activity and influence within the factory organisations.”68

A co-thinker and sometime member of the KAPD was the Dutch Marxist, Anton Pannekoek. His book ‘Workers’ Councils’ remains one of the most widely read council communist texts, and was recently republished by anarchist publishers AK Press. Pannekoek acknowledges that the self-organised activity he advocates is indeed direct action. For Pannekoek, direct action takes place against both capital and the trade unions. In his view, the bureaucratic and inertial nature of the trade unions is a function simply of their size:

“[T]he increase in the number of workers, the urgent necessity of association, make the trade unions giant organisations, needing an ever-increasing staff of officials and leaders. These develop into a bureaucracy administering all business, a ruling power over the members, because all the power factors are in their hands.”69

He is explicitly referring to the trade unions rather than syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist unions, and his criticisms would not seem to apply so much to the latter, which typically sought to prevent bureaucracies emerging by rejecting paid officials, and making all positions into mandated recallable delegates. In fact Pannekoek praises the IWW, although hoping it is a ‘transitional form’ that will become unnecessary as workers begin to take direct action spontaneously.70

In place of trade union organisation, Pannekoek advocated spontaneous direct action, with workers forming and disbanding strike committees and factory councils as the struggle dictated. But in the tradition of deterministic Marxism, he linked this faith in spontaneity somewhat mechanically to the predicted ever deepening crises of capitalism:

“The depressing tendencies grow stronger under big capitalism and so the resistance of the workers must grow stronger, too. Economic crises grow more and more destructive and undermine apparently secured progress. The exploitation is intensified to retard the lowering of the profit rate for rapidly increasing capital. So again and again the workers are provoked to resistance.”71

Pannekoek does not reject organisation; in fact, he stresses the “fight of the workers against capital is not possible without organisation.” However, “organisation springs up spontaneously, immediately”, not in the form of a new trade union but through forms such as strike committees.72 This reliance on spontaneity and intermittent workplace organisation is one of the main differences with the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, which we will explore in detail in the following chapter. However, Pannekoek’s analysis is problematic. If the strike committee is formed spontaneously, that implies the strike itself… just happened. There may well be examples of such spontaneous strikes, but recent history does not support the idea that capitalist attacks make for spontaneous resistance. Rather, numerous factors come into play, such as the confidence and morale of the workers involved, their experiences of past struggles, the level of organisation on the shop floor, and so on. The workplace organisation of the AAUD was formed not to wage these everyday struggles, but to push for communism. Everyday struggles were left as a matter of spontaneity.73

Nonetheless, the council communism of the KAPD/AAUD drew strong criticism from the party communists. Amadeo Bordiga wrote that “The declaration of the 'Left' Communists of Germany (KAPD) at their founding congress in April, that they were founding a party, but 'not a party in the traditional sense of the word', is an ideological surrender to these reactionary views of syndicalism and industrialism.”74 In a sense, Bordiga is right. However, from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective, a rejection of revolution as party dictatorship, and an emphasis on the revolutionary power of workers organised at the point of production is not a retreat, but a significant advance on mainstream Marxism. And if Bordiga thought the KAPD and AAUD were surrendering to syndicalism, the founding of the AAUD-E soon after went one step further.

Otto Rühle was expelled from the KAPD in October 1920, and took with him some sections of the party, which merged into the AAUD forming the AAUD-E (the 'E' standing for 'unitary'). Its programme espoused hostility to parliament, political parties and trade unions, banned paid officials, and advocated the international expropriation of capitalists to be managed by workers’ councils.75 Whereas the KAPD/AAUD had split the councillist movement into political and economic organisations, the AAUD-E sought to serve as a unitary organisation, one which merged the party into the factory organisation and organised at the point of production. Rühle was the leading theoretician of this tendency. His 1920 text ‘the revolution is not a party affair’ attracted the ire of Lenin, and set out an account of the revolutionary union as he saw it:

“This General Workers’ Union is taking root in the factories, building itself up in branches of industry from the base up, federally at the base, and through revolutionary shop stewards at the top. It exerts pressure from the base up, from the working masses. It is built according to their needs; it is the flesh and blood of the proletariat; the force that motivates it is the action of the masses; its soul is the burning breath of the revolution. It is not the creation of some leaders; it is not a subtly altered construction. It is neither a political party with parliamentary chatter and paid hacks, nor a trade union. It is the revolutionary proletariat.”76

While the influence of syndicalism is clear, there are a number of important differences. Firstly, the councillist unions rejected everyday struggles, leaving these to either reformist unions or spontaneous action by workers. This can be seen as a product of the time – revolution seemed on the horizon, so all their energies were directed at that goal – but the reliance on spontaneity is distinct from the syndicalist stress on agitation and organisation. Similarly, workers’ struggles were only seen as being ‘political’ on a mass scale, with widespread strikes and the possibility of revolution. The meaning of ‘politics’ for anarcho-syndicalists will be taken up in the next chapter. The move away from party politics to the shop floor also brought with it a very crude workerism, rejecting struggles outside the factories, with Rühle writing that “whenever the worker is seen outside the factory, he is a petty bourgeois.”77 This contrasts sharply with the wider cultural, educational and social elements of the syndicalist tradition.

Second, the council communists saw their revolutionary unions as transitional organisations to be formed on the eve of revolution to make the final push for workers’ councils and communism. This was pursued by either maintaining the dual (political) party/(economic) union organisation from mainstream Marxism, or in the case of the AAUD-E, by a merger of party and factory organisation into a 'unitary' political economic organisation. It was implicit that when the prospects of revolution receded, these organisations should disband and revert to more traditional Marxist forms. Indeed, the membership of the councillist groups dwindled from hundreds of thousands around 1920 to just hundreds by 1923.78 Similarly, the struggle up to that point was to be pursued by a more traditional reformist union-revolutionary party pairing, with the party propagandising against the limits of reformist unionism and for workers’ councils.


In this chapter we have encountered three radical currents in the workers' movement: anarchism, the anti-state wing of socialism; syndicalism, a direct action union movement; and council communism, a dissident Marxist tradition which arrived at some similar political and organisational conclusions to anarchism and syndicalism. Broadly speaking, anarchism constitutes a political current, whereas syndicalism addresses itself to workers' shared economic interests. The latter sometimes left the door open for a creeping representative function and recuperation by the state. But that's not to say syndicalist currents, such as the IWW direct actionists, have not sought to make the political content more explicit, particularly in favouring unions as workers’ associations for direct action as opposed to representation. In a similar vein, council communism broke with the Marxist orthodoxy separating economic trade unions from the political party and formed revolutionary unions. These also refused a representative role, insisting only workers’ councils could express the interests of the working class. However, these were seen as a temporary formation on the eve of revolution, rather than the long term organising force within the working class favoured by syndicalism.

Further reading

On anarchism, the Anarchist FAQ is the first port of call. It’s a huge, encyclopaedic account of the numerous strands of anarchism and their relation to other currents, and debunks a lot of common myths. The first volume is available in print, edited by Iain McKay, and the web version is regularly updated. ‘No Gods No Masters’ by Daniel Guerin is also a highly regarded anthology. Units 5-12 of the SelfEd history of anarcho-syndicalism cover the early history of syndicalism (including anarcho-syndicalism) around the world. In terms of syndicalism, there are several recommended books. Marcel van der Linden and Wayne Thorpe’s edited volume ‘Revolutionary Syndicalism’ is highly informative, as is Bob Holton’s ‘British Syndicalism 1900-1914’. ‘The Slow Burning Fuse’ by John Quail also covers much of early British anarchism and syndicalism. In terms of council communism, there are several introductions available online which give an overview. ‘An introduction to left communism in Germany from 1914 to 1923’ by Dave Graham is available on libcom.org and provides a good introduction.79‘The communist left in Germany 1918-1921’ by Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier is also available in full online and provides a detailed account.80 Anton Pannekoek’s ‘Workers’ councils’ was recently republished by AK Press, with an introduction by Noam Chomsky, and remains one of the clearest statements of council communism. Mark Shipway’s ‘Anti-parliamentary communism – the movement for workers’ councils in Britain 1917-1945’ covers British councillist tendencies, with some overlap with syndicalism and the shop stewards’ movement.