Bibliographic Essay

Submitted by Steven. on June 15, 2011

The history of anarcho-syndicalism has been little studied. Social historians have been attracted in the first instance to social-democratic and communist trends in the workers’ movement; less frequently they have studied Christian and other “mainstream” trade unions. In the Soviet Union, under the conditions of the ideological monopoly of the CPSU, anarcho-syndicalism was perceived as an ideological enemy with which one must carry on an uncompromising struggle. In the books and brochures of V. Yagov, B. M. Leibzon, V. V. Komin, F. Ya. Polyansky, N. V. Ponomarev, S. N. Kanev, E. M. Kornoukhov, I. S. Rozental, et al, this tendency was considered a variety of “petty-bourgeois revolutionism” (along with Trotskyism and Maoism). These authors acknowledged that anarcho-syndicalism had involved significant masses of workers in various countries and in different periods of time; however, this fact was interpreted as a manifestation of the “weakness” and immaturity of the workers’ movement. The fundamental ideas and viewpoints of anarchists and syndicalists were reduced to a simplistic level or, as often happened – just falsified; the intention of these works did not consist in analyzing the content of the positions being criticized, but rather in exposing “ultra-leftists.” The anarcho-syndicalist International was hardly mentioned, and lumped under the rubric “anarcho-syndicalism” without any distinction were the revolutionary syndicalism of the early 20th century, the syndicalist “neo-Marxists” G. Sorel and A. Labriola, such very different union centrals as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Spanish National Confederation of Labour, and even the “Workers’ Opposition” inside the Bolshevik Party at the beginning of the 1920’s.

To some degree or other problems connected with the revolutionary syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist movement were touched upon by the authors of studies of the history of specific countries: France (S. N. Gurvich, V. M. Dalin, G. Morozov, R. Sabsovich, and others) , Spain (S. P. Pozharskaya, L. V. Ponomareva, and others) , Italy (Z. P. Yakhimovich), and the states of Latin America (B. I. Koval, and others). In general these works were not devoted particularly to the history of anarchism (as a rare exception one can mention Ye. Yu. Staburova’s investigation of anarchism in China). Without deviating from official conceptions, these historians adduced information and facts which broadened the understanding of revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism as components of the global workers’ movement. Nevertheless, here also one finds the predominance of an ideologized assessment of the role of anarchists and syndicalists and their “influence on the masses.”

The elimination of the ideological monopoly of the CPSU in 1990-1991 and the opening of the archives allowed native historians to study social movements at a higher level. Researchers began to write more objectively about the role of the anarchists. A two-volume collection of documents about the Russian anarchists was published, and works appeared about the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in Russia. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that an in-depth study of the role of the anarcho-syndicalists in the Russian Revolution still does not exist.

The study of the international anarcho-syndicalist movement was also initiated. A. V. Shubin published several works which covered the role not only of the anarchists in the Makhnovist movement in Ukraine, but also Spanish anarcho-syndicalism in the period of the Spanish Revolution of the 1930’s and the discussions in the Russian emigration and in the global anarchist movement during the inter-war period. Above all he discussed in detail the social transformations carried out by anarcho-syndicalist workers in Spain and the political practice of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT), and demonstrated the baselessness of many of the myths about anarchism and the accusations directed at the CNT. At the same time, one must regard as unproven his ideas about a transition of anarcho-syndicalism in the 1920’s and 1930’s to a position of “market socialism” and about its “reversion” from Kropotkin to Bakunin.

On the whole, despite significant progress in the study of anarcho-syndicalism, in Russian historiography up to now there have been no investigations devoted to the history of the anarcho-syndicalism International and its sections in a majority of the countries of the world.

Elsewhere a number of works have been published about anarcho-syndicalist organizations and unions in individual countries of the world. The most investigated has been the most powerful movement – the Spanish; indeed the majority of authors were part of it themselves (M. Buenacasa, M. Iñigez, J. Gómez Casas, G. Leval, S. Lorenzo, A. Paz, J. Peirats, and others). Of course, this circumstance has left its imprint on their works: in their pages one finds the continuation of polemics around questions which have long divided the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists, such as the role of the anarchist federation FAI, the struggle with reformism, and tactics in the period of Revolution and Civil War 1936-1939. The study of the Spanish movement has also been taken up by authors far removed from it – A. Balcells, A. Bar, B. Bolloten, J. Brademas, A. Elorza, J. Garner, et al. Historians have been able to show the unique character of syndicalism in Spain, which drew on a tradition which can be traced back directly to the anarchism of the Bakuninist wing of the First International, and formed an original “symbiosis” of both tendencies. Simultaneously the Spanish movement to some extent also felt the influence of French revolutionary syndicalism. In investigations up to the present there exist varying analyses of the activity of the anarchist groups which were formed inside the anarcho-syndicalist unions of Spain: some authors consider them harmful (S. Lorenzo); others – understandable in the light of efforts to oppose reformist and communist tendencies, but useless; and a third group inclined to interpret the actions of at least some of these groups in a positive way (A. Paz, J. Gómez Casas). However, in studies of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism there remain issues and episodes which have been less studied. This applies, in particular, to the battles between supporters and opponents of the Profintern in the CNT, to the development of the “worker anarchism” tendency in the CNT, and the internal struggle in the anarchist movement after the coup of Primo de Rivera in 1923.

One special theme, to which a multitude of books and articles is devoted, is the activity and role of the anarchosyndicalists in the period of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War 1936-1939.

As for other European countries, the greatest interest of researchers has been drawn to French revolutionary syndicalism, frequently regarded as the prototype of all other syndicalist movements. The most important contributions to its study have been made by E. Dolléans, G. Lefranc, J. Maitron, J. Julliard, et al. But still insufficiently studied is the problem of the social base and some concrete moments of the history of the syndicalist movement in France (composition, membership, relationship to social legislation). The least studied aspect remains the activity of the small union central of French anarcho-syndicalists in the inter-war period. In works by German historians since the end of the 1960’s (H. M. Bock, A. Vogel, U. Klan, D. Nelles, H. Rübner, et al.) there is sufficient detail on the founding and development of the Free Association of German Trade Unions (the German section of the anarcho-syndicalist International) and the social organizations connected with it. Comparatively less attention has been devoted to the internal ideological discussions within the ranks of the German movement.

Italian syndicalism has been the subject of investigations by M. Antonioli, C. Venza, E. Falco, G. Careri, et al. The history of anarcho-syndicalism in Portugal is reflected in the workers of the libertarian authors E. Rodrigues, J. Freire, and P. F. Zarcone. Concerning the syndicalist movement in other European countries only investigations limited in scope have been published.

There are a number of monographs and articles about the history of the anarchist workers’ movement in Argentina (E. Bilsky, A. López, S. Marotta, I. Oved, J. Solomonoff, and others). Unfortunately, the emphasis in these works is on the period up to 1920-1921, and the presence of a new surge of working class anarchism in Argentina in the 1920’s is frequently ignored. The ideological-theoretical positions of the FORA, which it defended in the course of debates in the international anarcho-syndicalist movement, also deserve a more substantial analysis.

In Latin America the best studied anarcho-syndicalist movements are those of Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba. But even here there more than a few neglected moments and details so that the reader, instead of a systematic and thorough picture of the development of organizations, is more often than not presented with sketches describing events with varying degrees of detail. There are also individual works on the history of anarchism and syndicalism in other countries of the region.

The study of Chinese anarchism has been taken up by R. Scalapino, J.-J. Gandini, A. Dirlik, Nohara Shiro, et al.

Unfortunately, the anarcho-syndicalist movement receives significantly less attention in these works; thus, the history of libertarian ideas in China after the mid 1920’s remains basically a “white patch.” The study of Japanese anarchism and syndicalism in the period between the two world wars has received valuable contributions from the European and North American researchers J. Crump, P. Pelletier, S. Large, et al. Works have been published in the Japanese language by Kiyoshi Akiyama, Akinobu Gotô, Ryuji Komatsu, and Yasuyuki Suzuki. The book by Yoshikharu Hashimoto was translated into English; the rest, unfortunately, are inaccessible to the European reader. The history of Korean anarchism is the subject only one substantial, but far from exhaustive, investigation – the work of Ha Ki-Rak.

A special place in the international syndicalist movement is occupied by syndicalism and revolutionary unionism in the English-speaking countries. For a long time the predominant point of view was that the rise of syndicalist tendencies in Great Britain before the First World War was an isolated, temporary episode which did not play an important role in the history of the British workers’ movement. However, in recent decades historians have begun to direct more attention to such phenomena as the ongoing tradition of the struggle for workers’ control, the movement for merger (“amalgamation”) of trade unions, the opposition movements of rank-and- file members, and other examples of the influence of syndicalism. Researchers have come to the conclusion that British syndicalism was not an alien phenomenon, but a natural and appropriate response to the existing historical situation, a manifestation of the drive to overcome shop-level and professional particularism in favour of the community of interests of workers in one or other industries.

To the study of the syndicalist movement in other English- speaking countries (the Industrial Workers of the World and the One Big Union) contributions have been made by such authors as F. Thompson, P. Renshaw, M. Dubofsky, P. Carlson, and M. Hargis (U.S.A.) ; G. Jewel and D. Bercuson (Canada) ; L. van der Walt (South Africa) et al. But the whole story of this “industrial” tendency in syndicalism has not yet been written.

In global historiography a discussion about the historical place and role of anarcho-syndicalism in the workers’ movement is ongoing.

The Marxist tradition is inclined to view it as a product of the “underdevelopment” of the workers’ movement, the evolution of which is understood as a linear-progressive process. Syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism are associated with economic backwardness, a manifestation of the pre-industrial, “primitive” rebellion of people from a peasant and handicraft milieu (“first generation workers”) who are unable to adjust to the realities of industrial-capitalist society. This phase was completed with the onset of the period of contemporary large-scale industry, mass production, and mass consumption. Anarcho-syndicalism “lingered on” for some time only in “backward” countries where, at the beginning of the 20th century, handicraft or semi-handicraft production still predominated (in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Latin America, etc.). The presence of certain customs and traditions supposedly led to “weak” self-discipline and the spread of insurrectionary methods of “direct action,” instead of the practice of collective bargaining between the enterprises and the workers. Correspondingly, the development of large-scale industry was viewed as a factor which led to the spread of Marxist ideas within the working class. As a result, a new type of trade union was established, based not on resolute opposition to enterprises and the contesting of their powers as such, but on negotiations and the pursuit of coordinated efforts to assure the functioning of production.

A contrast to this point of view, based to a significant extent on technical-economic determinism, emphasized in the first instance the particularism of individual countries, differences in culture and mentality, forms and functions of the State, and traditions of class resistance. In connection with this, a thesis was put forward according to which syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism were perceived as above all “Romance” phenomena, peculiar to Romanic peoples (French, Spaniards, Latin Americans, etc.). It’s interesting that such a position has traditionally been upheld by many syndicalists, as well as a number of social-democratic authors (M. Adler, W. Sombart). Some historians to this day are inclined to make a comparison between the pragmatic (Anglo-Saxon) and social-democratic (continental) tendency in the trade union movement with the Romance-syndicalist tendency, which is characterized as having a lower level of self-discipline, less responsibility in the handling of the members’ dues, and a weakness for radical forms of action.

The majority of researchers nowadays eschew “extreme” points of view and call for the study of various factors and circumstances. The thesis about anarcho-syndicalism as a manifestation of “lack of consciousness” and “backwardness” of workers is not confirmed by the facts. The characterization of anarchism as a utopian, petty-bourgeois movement cannot explain why it enjoyed popularity among significant strata of workers in very different countries of the world. A concrete-historical investigation shows that syndicalism attracted not only skilled and handicraft workers (in the construction and metalworking trades) who were afraid of losing the value of their skill as a result of the introduction of new technologies and methods of organizing labour, but also workers who had received industrial training, and young, unskilled migrant-workers who had been drawn into production as a result of an industrial boom or a restructuring of production for military ends and who were ignored by “traditional” unions.

A number of authors have raised doubts about the legitimacy of the linear conception of the development of the workers’ movement, which associates radical activities and decentralized forms of organization with “backwardness.”

They note that handicraft and communal traditions of the “early” workers’ movement facilitated the formation of attitudes which could lead to and in fact led to more class-conscious, independent activity on the part of the workers. This class-consciousness included such elements as a conception of the social significance of labour, a striving for more independence and responsibility in the production process, and the desire to control the production process and its results.

The thesis about the “Romance” character of anarchosyndicalism as such also denied the facts. Researchers have shown that revolutionary syndicalism and working class anarchism propagated to very different countries and regions of the world – not only to Romanic, but also to Englishspeaking, Germanic, Slavic, and Asiatic. This forces the assumption that at the basis of the given phenomenon there must lie certain common causal factors.

Historians who have attempted a comparative analysis of the syndicalist movement in different countries (P. Schöttler, G. Haupt, L. Peterson, P. Lösche, W. Thorpe, M. van der Linden, and others) tend to interpret it in the context of the general transition from liberal to “organized” capitalism which was characterized by a high degree of State intervention. Radical protest, in their opinion, was directed not so much against the concentration of workers in large enterprises, as against the de-skilling of labour. At the same time they try to take into consideration the appearance of new strata of workers who are not satisfied with the previous relations and forms of organization of the working class, originating in the 19th century. These discontented categories believe that centralized trade unions and the political, parliamentary activities of the socialists are insufficient in themselves to defend their interests and needs. But these historians have failed to show a direct dependency between the scale of enterprises and the spread of syndicalist attitudes. The syndicalist movement pulled together very different strata of workers who rejected the authoritarian structures taking shape in the workplace.

Finally, some authors are inclined to view the rise of the revolutionary syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist movement in the first decades of the 20th century in the context of the history of the establishment and development of industrialcapitalist civilization itself – as a form of resistance against it and an effort to counterpoise to it a different, alternative model of society, based on self-management and a distinctive working-class culture. The introduction in the 20th century of the “Fordist-Taylorist” model of mass production, based on the division of labour into a series of discrete operations and the severe limiting of initiative, undermined the sense of wholeness of the production process and, consequently, any conception of the possibility of controlling it. This led to, among other things, the collapse of working class radicalism and then a decline in the workers’ movement as such and the “dissolution” of working-class culture.

The decline of mass radicalism in the workers’ movement (including anarcho-syndicalism) facilitated, in the opinion of a number of scholars, the rise of the “Social State” which took shape in the second third of the 20th century; thanks to this political development, the centre of social conflicts shifted from the sphere of production (and the battle for control over it) to the sphere of distribution and consumption. Workers relied more and more on the social and distributive role of the State and were less inclined to concur with the stateless alternative of the anarchists. Looked at from this point of view, the decrease in popularity of anarcho-syndicalism in the second half of the 20th century cannot be seen as “irreversible,” especially in light of the current crises of the “Social State” and the “Fordist model.”

In analyzing the “common” factors favouring the rise of revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism as a global movement in the first decades of the 20th century, historians can not forget the special features of individual countries and regions. These include the forms and models of organization, social basis, ideological tendency, emergent themes and problems, relationship to political parties, and, above all, the focus of labour union or social-cultural work.

On the whole one can say that the international anarchosyndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist movement has been studied in a very uneven manner. Along with a large number of monographs on the history of syndicalism in Memories of Class (London, 1982); et al. a few countries, there are only a few articles or pamphlets dealing with other countries. Of the various themes which have been studied in only a cursory fashion, one can mention ideological discussions, the organizational life of anarchosyndicalist unions and federations, and their international connections and relationships with the anarcho-syndicalist International. Issues concerning the social basis and historical place of anarcho-syndicalism in the history of the workers’ movement continue to be contentious.

Little work has been done on the history of the anarchosyndicalist International – the International Workers’ Association (IWA). Mainly there are some small pamphlets written by members of either the Secretariat of the International or anarcho-syndicalist organizations. In them one finds a demonstration of the origins of the IWA in the First International (at least its anti-authoritarian wing), and the continuity in positions between the two organizations. Much attention is devoted to the confrontation with Bolshevism in the 1920’s, and brief overviews of the congresses of the anarcho-syndicalist International and their resolutions are given. In these condensed outlines there is simply no room for detailed analyses of the course of events and their causes.

There are also some articles of greater scientific value by researchers who are sympathetic to anarchist attitudes. But such works are few in number and only deal with isolated moments in the history of the movement.

The Canadian historian W. Thorpe has made a noteworthy contribution to the history of the creation of the Berlin International. In collaboration with the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, he published an article about the London conference of syndicalists in 1913, followed by a fundamental investigation of the international contacts of revolutionary syndicalists before the First World War, their differentiation from Bolshevism, and the processes which led ultimately to the creation of the Berlin International. Thorpe’s work includes a general survey of syndicalism in the world prior to the First World War and an analysis of the discussions among syndicalists about setting up an international strategy. In a convincing manner he describes the dilemma which confronted syndicalism in connection with the attempts of Communist parties to subordinate trade unions to their party line. Finally, Thorpe traces the establishment of an international association of anarcho-syndicalists using materials from their meetings, conferences, and congresses. Unfortunately, his work devotes almost no attention to the internal development and activity of syndicalist organizations in individual countries, their participation in revolutionary events and strikes, and their accomplishments in the elaboration of ideological-theoretical ideas. Moreover, Thorpe makes almost no use of material from Soviet archives and archives of Communist parties.

In attempting to compensate to some extent for these deficiencies, Thorpe and the Dutch historian M. van der Linden published in 1990 the collection Revolutionary Syndicalism: an International Perspective, which was the first attempt to pull together articles about the development of revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico, the U.S.A., and Canada.

This collection includes Thorpe’s article: “Syndicalist Internationalism before World War II” with a brief survey of the history of the IWA up to 1939. The obvious value of the book consists in the fact that its editors invited the participation of the leading specialists in the history of syndicalist movements in individual countries. At the same time, the story of the anarcho-syndicalist International is covered in a very general way, and scarcely delves into the concrete moments in its work and activity; the analysis of ideological discussions is virtually absent. The articles on individual countries are relatively brief, and vary substantially in the level with which various aspects are dealt with; in some cases essential moments of the movement are covered in insufficient depth or not even mentioned at all.

Thus it can be said that a general history of the rise of the international anarcho-syndicalist movement – treated as an integral, global phenomenon and taking into account the mutual influence of international and national factors and social-revolutionary processes in individual countries – has yet to be written.