Anarchism and Trade Unionism

GASTON GERARD is a lecturer in political science whose valuable discussion of an anarchist approach to trade unionism first appeared in the University Libertarian in 1957.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 19, 2018

THE QUESTION OF THE POSITION anarchists should take in relation to Trade Unions has been the subject of perennial debate within the anarchist movement. It is not, however, a question which admits of a permanent or definitive answer. Because of differing circumstances and changing conditions, each generation of anarchists must think out its position afresh in the light of existing tendencies within its own national trade union movement. The present time seems an opportune one for a re-assessment of the anarchist position in relation to the British trade union movement and what follows is to be taken as a tentative contribution towards this end.

A useful starting point for discussion is provided in the two articles by Errico Malatesta on the subject published in 1907 and 1925 respectively.* The first was written at a time when the movement of revolutionary syndicalism was making great strides on the Continent. In France, where the classic revolutionary syndicalist movement found its most complete expression in the days before the first world war, this movement was very much a product of anarchist activity. Largely in reaction against the notorious policy of “propaganda by deed”, many of the younger anarchists, led by the redoubtable Fernand Pelloutier, joined the syndicates with the object of developing their revolutionary potentialities. Such work seemed to them to offer a constructive alternative to a policy of negation and destruction which, however, justifiable it might be in theory, had done much to discredit the anarchist movement in the sight of the world at large. In their enthusiasm for the new policy. however, many of the anarchists abandoned any purely anarchist activity on the ground that· the syndicate in its various forms was not only the most effective means of overthrowing capitalism but also contained in itself all the essentials of a free society.

Such an attitude amounted in effect to an identification of anarchism and syndicalism and its was against this attitude that Malatesta directed his attack. He was not opposed, it should be noted, to anarchists participating as individuals in labour organisations. On the contrary, he thought that such participation was necessary; but he insisted that it should be participation and not identification. This position: which he reiterated in his second article, he supported on two main grounds. First, that anarchism was not equivalent to syndicalism. If it were, he argued, then syndicalism was merely a new and confusing term. In fact, however, it was not; only certain syndicalist ideas were genuinely anarchistic; others were only authoritarian ideas under a new guise. Experience had shown, he argued, that labour organisations, however, revolutionary they might be in their initial phases, had a twin tendency to degenerate into reformist and bureaucratic bodies. And this tendency was owing, not so much to personal factors, such as the corrupting influence of power, as to certain institutional factors.
It was, and is, a fundamental article of syndicalist theory that syndicates or unions perform a dual role; a negative role of defending the workers’ interests under capitalism and a positive role of acting as the nuclei of the future society. Malatesta’s point, as I interpret it, was that the first role-the defensive role, and in the short run from the ordinary worker’s point of view, the most important role-inevitably dominates the second role, and in so doing paves the way for reformism. To fulfil their defensive role, the unions have, for example, to submit to an element of legal control. In audition, they are compelled to widen their membership as far as possible with the object of achieving a 100% organisation in their trade or industry. In doing this, however, the conscious militant minority becomes swamped by the non-militant majority, with the result that, even if the leadership remains in the hands of the militants, the revolutionary ideas one started with have to be toned down. The revolutionary programme becomes nothing but an empty formula.
Malatesta’s conclusion, therefore, was that whilst anarchists should remain in the unions, combating as fiercely as possible these degenerative tendencies, they should not identify themselves too closely with syndicalism. “Let us beware of ourselves,” he said. “The error of having abandoned the Labour movement has done an immense injury to anarchism, but at least it leaves unaltered the distinctive character. The error of confounding the anarchist movement with Trade Unionism would be still more grave. That will happen to us which happened to the Social Democrats as soon as they went into the Parliamentary struggle. They gained in numerical force, but by becoming each day less Socialistic. We also would become more numerous, but we should cease to be anarchist.”

How far Malatesta’s arguments applicable to the British trade union movement and how valid is his conclusion today?

* “Anarchism and the Labour Movement, “originally published in FREEDOM, Nov. 1907 and republished in the same journal 23.2.1946; “Syndicalism and Anarchism,” published in Pensiero e Volonta, April-May, 1925 and republished in FREEDOM, 11.10.1952.

A review of the history of British trade unionism shows that there is ample evidence to support the view that labour organisations tend to degenerate into reformist bodies. Contrary to popular belief, trade unionism in this country has not always been reformist; it has in fact passed through several revolutionary, or potentially revolutionary, phases. It was in the early days of the movement that syndicalist ideas first saw the light of day. The Grand National of 1834 was the first expression of the One Big Union idea, and it was William Benbow who first elaborated the theory of the general strike—or grand national holiday, as he called it. In its beginnings at least British trade unionism was as revolutionary as one might wish. After the collapse of the first revolutionary movement, the trade unions settled down to win reforms within the existing system—reforms which in the hey-day of its 19th century prosperity British capitalism could well afford. Then in the 1880s with the onset of the Great Depression and the rise of competitors like Germany who challenged British capitalism’s industrial supremacy, revolutionary ideas once again came to the fore in trade union circles. These ideas were associated particularly with the rise of what was called the new Unionism-the attempt to organise the unskilled workers. Many British anarchists of the day considered that this New Unionism offered great scope for anarchist influence. William Morris’ Socialist League, for example, addressed one of its first manifestos to the trade unions urging them “to direct all their energies towards confederating and federating with the distinct end of constituting themselves the nucleus of the socialist commonwealth” and making clear that the aim of socialism was the abolition of “that great bogey,” the State. Similarly a writer in Freedom in 1892 urged that “Unions are free spontaneous associations of working men waiting to do anarchistic work.” In point of fact, however, the New Unionists, despite their more militant policy, their vague talk of workers’ control and a general strike, and their disavowal of the friendly society functions of the old union of skilled workers, proved to be less not more anarchistic than the old unions. It was the New Unions which were, the first to become infected with Fabian State Socialism and it was the New Unions which forced the pace in the movement towards the creation of a political Labour Party.

The reason for this apparent paradox is illuminating. Just because the workers they enlisted in their ranks could not afford to finance “coffin club” activities, and did not possess a monopoly of any particular skill, the New Unions were predisposed towards political action. Too weak to secure their defensive objects themselves, they turned to the State to do the job for them—to introduce a legislative 8-hour day, old age pensions, unemployment benefits and the like. At its birth the Labour Party was largely a means of achieving the defensive objects of the trade unions—and this, despite its “Socialist” programme, remains its primary function today. To tell trade unionists therefore to renounce political action is to ask them to renounce what they have found to be a powerful defensive weapon and to rely on their own unaided efforts—and to risk the possible loss of reforms that have already been won.

The third and to date last revolutionary phase of British trade unionism was the period roughly 1910-1926 when syndicalist ideas were again in the ascendant. British syndicalism was born partly of disillusionment with Labour Party policies and was partly the result of Continental and American influence. The movement achieved some success in spreading the idea of workers’ control among the rank-and-file trade unionists and, in fact, to the extent that this idea is alive today in the British working-class movement, it is largely owing to the syndicalists of this period and their middle-class counterparts, the guild socialists. But the syndicalist movement proper collapsed partly through internal dissensions consequent on the creation of the Communist Party and partly through lack of success. The savage counter-attack of the British ruling class during the General Strike of 1962 dealt a body blow to British trade unionism. Syndicalist ideas were discredited most unjustly since the General Strike was certainly not syndicalist inspired—and after 1926 the policy of political action once again began to dominate trade union thought. Nothing that has happened since has seemed to justify to the majority of trade unions a return to the policy of relying on direct action in the industrial sphere. In terms of their own practical objects, trade union leaders have no incentive to revert to direct action methods. The political ruling class is now agreed on the maintenance of the Welfare State which represents the limit of the utopian aspirations of the average trade unionist. As a guarantee of its maintenance the official trade union movement has been granted a secure niche in the organisation of the State and in return for this concession it throws its weight against “irresponsible” and unofficial strikes.

It is possible that if the Welfare State were threatened either by a reactionary government or by a new slump. this might provide the necessary stimulus for a new revolutionary phase in the history of British trade unionism. But there are no signs that a real slump is likely to occur in the foreseeable future or that our ruling class is so inept as to allow a repetition of mass unemployment on the scale experienced in the 1930s. And what is more important, there is no reason to believe that, if trade unionism did take a revolutionary tum, this would be anything more than a passing phase. There is nothing in the history of British trade unionism to suggest that in the long run it is ever likely to be more than a reformist institution. Looked at historically, revolutionary methods and policies on the part of British trade unionism have been no more than one way of winning reformist concessions from the ruling class. Trade unionists have, in effect, been saying to their masters: “If you don’t grant us our modest demands, just look what we’ll do!”


The other tendency—the tendency towards bureaucratisation—which Malatesta discerned is also amply illustrated in British trade unionism. “Every institution,” he wrote, “has a tendency to extend its functions, to perpetuate itself, and to become an end in itself.” When this tendency becomes dominant, bureaucracy, the de facto rule of officials, is the result. This stage in the life of an organisation is marked by the emergence of a new type of leader—the organiser, who replaces the more demagogic type: the Morrisons replace the Keir Hardies, the Bevins and Deakins replace the Ben Tilletts and the Tom Manns. In theory the officials remain responsible to their members but in practice it is the officials who run the show.
This tendency which Malatesta noted has since been elaborated into a sociological hypothesis, known as the law of oligarchy. First formulated by Robert Michels in his exhaustive study of “Political Parties” (1915), it has a general application. Put in its most general form, the hypothesis states that in any organisation, however democratic it may be, once it has reached a certain size and degree of complexity, there is an invariable tendency for the officials to gain effective control. The ostensibly democratic constitution thus merely serves to mask what is in fact the rule of a narrow oligarchy. It needs no great knowledge of British trade unionism to appreciate the fact that the movement has reached the oligarchical stage. The facts published in Dr. Goldstein’s book on the T.G.W.U. confirm the view that Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy,” as he called it, holds within the trade union world that we know today.

Increasing awareness of the twin tendency in trade unionism towards reformism and bureaucracy has suggested to many contemporary anarchists that participation in trade unions is value-less and that instead attention should be concentrated in building up a new trade union movement on avowedly syndicalist lines. This, as I understand it, is the policy of those who call themselves anarcho-syndicalists. Such anarchists propose that the new movement should adopt principles or organisation which would ensure that it would not develop in the way the “official” trade union movement has developed. The new unions or syndicates are to be based on industries rather than on crafts, thus avoiding sectional conflicts between the workers themselves. There is to be no political action; instead, reliance is to be placed exclusively on direct action. By this means it is hoped to’ avoid mere reformisms and the danger of unions being used for the ulterior ends of political opportunists and careerists. Special measures are to be taken to avoid the danger of bureaucratisation. There will be a minimum of organisers; no organiser will be regarded as permanent; and no organiser will be paid more than a rank-and-file worker. By these means, it is hoped that control will remain with the rank-and-file: the danger of control falling into the hand of a hierarchy of officials will be avoided because there will be no officials in the sense understood by ordinary trade unionists today.

In theory all this is perfectly correct but nevertheless the policy of seeking to create anarchist organisations—for this is what it amounts to—is, I believe, mistaken. In the first place, the time is not propitious.

Such a policy is likely to bear fruit only in a period of revolutionary crisis and after the ground has been well fertilized by years of propaganda in favour of such general objects as workers’ control. In this respect, it will take years of intensive effort before the climate in the world of labour is as favourable towards revolutionary activity as it was in, say, the early 1920s. In the second place, the theory of anarcho-syndicalist organisation fails to show how it can counteract the institutional factor noted by Malatesta. The means proposed for ensuring rank-and-file control can only be successful if membership is confined to workers who are more or less conscious anarchists. But if this was done, the numbers at the present time and in the foreseeable future would necessarily be small and the unions so organised would find themselves unable to fulfil satisfactorily their first role—that of defending the interests of their members under the existing regime. If. on the other hand, membership was. not limited-the unions would soon become swamped by reformists and the anarcho-syndicalist principles of organisation would cease to operate. The reformists might· allow the organisation to keep its revolutionary programme but it would be more than a paper programme. In this connection it should be noted that many existing unions still have the revolutionary object of workers’ control written into their constitutions. In short, the anarcho-syndicalist is faced with an inescapable dilemma at the present time: he can either choose to keep his organisation revolutionary, in which case it will be small and ineffective in defence; or he can choose to make it large and effective for defensive purposes at the sacrifice of its revolutionary potentialities. In addition, a policy of creating separate organisations would divide and confuse the workers even more than they are divided and confused at the present time and this in itself would be used as a strong propaganda point by the existing union hierarchy. And, finally, there is the undeniable fact that the efforts expended by anarcho-syndicalists in propagandising their policy has had little effect. The hopes placed by the anarcho-syndicalists in the unofficial workers’ committees that have sprung up since the war have not been fulfilled.

In the present circumstances, therefore, it seems to me that Malatesta’s main contentions still hold good that those anarchists who are prepared to act in the industrial sphere should work within the existing unions rather than propagate the idea of a new union movement. This is not to say that the time will never come when the workers should be encouraged to form new and revolutionary unions but that time· will be in the future after the ground has been well prepared in the present unions. In short, the position anarchists should take in relation to trade unionism today is to participate in them as rank-and-file members with the two-fold object of (i) making anarchists by spreading anarchist ideas and explaining to their fellow-workers the root causes of their disillusionment with the trade union leadership and policies and (ii) acting as a prophylactic against reformist and bureaucratic tendencies.

The first object is fundamental in the sense that it is now clearer than ever than an anarchist society can be brought about, not by mass movements, however “revolutionary,” but only by individuals who have consciously adopted an anarchist philosophy and faith. As William Morris was never tired of asserting in the days when “socialism” was still an honourable word, the only way to make socialism is to make socialists—a truth which his Fabian opponents never began to understand.

The second object, if less fundamental, is of the utmost importance in the immediate future. The unions began as free associations of workers to promote their economic interests. Increasingly since the war. however, they are being incorporated in the mechanism of the State. Such incorporation means in practice that instead of defending their members’ interests they are tending more and more to act as disciplinary bodies and as agencies for restraining the workers. The insistence on greater productivity at all costs—with no questioning of what is produced and to what end—and the present talk of regulating strikes are significant pointers to the fact that British trade unionism is treading the same road as its Soviet counterpart. Unless the present tendency is halted soon, the much vaunted independence of trade unionism will be no more; and one further step will be taken towards the totalitarian state. In a situation such as this and granted that the most desirable course of action is not practicable—in this case, the speedy building up of genuinely anarchist unions—there is only one sensible alternative for the revolutionary: to do his utmost to reverse the present tendency. For it is obvious that independence of the State is a prior condition for any further development of labour organisations along anarchist lines. By opposing the reformism and bureaucratic control of the existing trade union leadership and asserting the independence of the unions, anarchists could play their part in stopping the drift towards totalitarianism. Such a role is less heroic than attempting to foster anarcho-syndicalist unions, but in the long run is likely to be more fruitful.

In an age like our own when all the major currents are running towards “the closed society,” the revolutionary might well be satisfied if he can achieve the limited object of keeping open the door to freedom.