Chapter 1: From the First International to Revolutionary Syndicalism

Submitted by Steven. on June 8, 2011

The prehistory of anarcho-syndicalism has its origin in the anti-authoritarian wing of the First International – the Bakuninists and federalists. The First International was created in 1864 and included adherents of various socialist tendencies. In the course of discussions in this international workers’ organization, ideas were formed about labour unions as an instrument of social liberation, about the role of the general strike, about the primacy of economic struggle, about the replacement of organs of the State by organizations of producers, about the self-management of society, and about “direct action,” i.e. the workers acting directly in their own interests and not handing over the job to political parties and leaders. After the split of the International in 1872, these views were upheld by anti-authoritarian anarchists. Their Marxist opponents set about creating social-democratic and socialist parties which engaged in the struggle for political power and the “conquest of the State.”

The rivalry between the two tendencies (anarchist and Marxist) gripped the workers’ movement. It developed unevenly and in different ways in various countries. But by the beginning of the 20th century it seemed the state socialists (social-democrats) had definitely gained the upper hand. Their opponents – the anti-authoritarian socialists (anarchists) – had been driven out of the workers’ movement in the majority of countries. On the one hand, the anarchists themselves had assisted this development at the end of the 19th century by their mistaken tactic of assuming they could bring forth revolution directly by means of symbolic acts of violence, without the necessity for solid, long-term organizing of working class forces. On the other hand, the rapid economic growth of the 1880’s strengthened illusions about the possibility of the peaceful improvement of the situation of the workers within the framework of the industrial-capitalist system.1
Social-democracy originated from the concept that the history of humanity proceeds along an ascending line of progress. Its theoreticians assumed that capitalism by its own development prepares the basis for the future socialist society, a society which in many aspects (technology, industrial and political centralization, division of labour, specialization of productive and social functions) becomes the continuation of capitalist society.2 The fundamental difference between the two social formations was located by the social-democrats in the control of political power: thus it was necessary to wrest power from the capitalists and transfer it to the workers, thereby putting the industrial machine created by capitalism at the service of everyone. In other words, the factory system of organizing production was to be extended to the whole of society. The liberation of the working classes and socialism were understood not as a break with the logic of capitalism and industrialization, but as their consequent development according to their own natural laws.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century the major labour union associations of Europe were controlled by social-democratic parties: the German and Austro-Hungarian Free Trade Unions; a number of French, Dutch, Belgian, and Portuguese workers’ associations; the General Workers’ Union (UGT) of Spain; the federations of trade unions of the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, etc. The majority of British trade unions endorsed parliamentary socialism and supported the creation of the Labour Party.

The characteristic tactic of the social-democrats in the trade union movement consisted in subjecting the mass workers’ movements to the party line, strengthening the power and influence of the union bureaucracy and its control over the disbursement of union funds, and promoting an orientation towards purely economic struggle while leaving political and social questions entirely to the competence of the party.

Anarchists and other anti-authoritarian socialists retained influence only in the workers’ movements of Spain and Latin America, and also to some extent in workers’ organizations in France, Portugal, and Italy.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century the hegemony of social-democracy was challenged. Dissatisfaction with the parliamentary strategy of the workers’ parties generated not only intra-party left oppositions, but also resistance in the labour union milieu. A new radical current arose – revolutionary syndicalism. This term began to be applied to a labour union movement “which recommended ‘revolutionary direct action’ for the transformation of economic and social conditions of the working masses… in contrast to parliamentary reformism.”3

Researchers have identified some of the causes of this radicalization of the attitudes and actions of the workers. First of all, it was connected with a change in the position of the workers themselves within the structure of industrial production. Up to the 1890’s and the first decade of the 20th century the organization of industrial production on the whole had not reached a level of specialization which would allow the division of the labour process into separate operations.

Labour in industrial enterprises was still characterized by a certain integrity not unlike the labour of craftsmen, from which factory workers inherited the psychology and ethic of autonomy and independence. They possessed complex production knowledge: in their own area of expertise, in the sphere of organizing their labour, in the distribution of labour-time, etc. All this favoured the formation of ideas among the workers about the possibility of workers’ control of the whole production process, and both production- and social-oriented self-management.4

A systematic revolution in production, beginning at the turn of the century (based on new sources of energy, and the increasing use of electricity and the internal combustion engine) led to changes in the relations of the various branches of industry and the appearance of new ones. The widespread application of technical innovations resulted in advances in production processes and changes in working and living conditions for the workers.5 The working class was more and more concentrated in cities in homogeneous neighbourhoods which strengthened class consciousness and the feeling of solidarity among wage workers. Along with the precipitous rise in the profits of enterprises, almost everywhere stagnation or even a decline in real wages was the rule. Technical and organizational changes in production undermined the professional craft skills of workers. The addition of mechanical and electrical components to machines and operations fragmented the labour process, leading to the downgrading of workers’ skills so they were less able to grasp the labour process in its entirety and correspondingly lost the possibility of controlling it.6 New methods of organizing work and management (direct hiring of all workers, piece-work, the bonus system, models of internal incentives, and the introduction of intra-factory hierarchies) allowed enterprises and administrations to control and intensify production more rigorously, increasing both the workload and the working time of the labour force. All this reinforced the dissatisfaction of the workers, first of all in such branches of industry as manufacturing, mining, and railway transport.

At the same time, there was a growing number of unskilled temporary and seasonal workers in construction, shipping, agriculture, and the oil and gas industry. Their situation was insecure and unstable but they were less dependent on specialized labour and specific employers and liable to act quickly to defend their own rights and interests.

Observers noted a rapid growth in the sense of solidarity among workers. Evidence of this can be seen in the huge strikes of transport workers in Britain, the Netherlands, and France of 1911-1912, which acquired an international character. The mutual support of sailors, stevedores, and surface transport workers brought success to the cause of wage labourers. It was characteristic that workers of different countries effectively used similar methods of mutual aid, such organizing free meals and childcare.7 The strike movement was observed to be growing almost everywhere.

In a number of countries general or “political” strikes took place. The workers were less and less satisfied with the traditional politics of social-democratic workers’ parties and trade unions. Social-democracy rejected the notion of general strikes as “total nonsense.” At a congress of the German Free Trade Unions in Cologne (1905), it was once more affirmed that “the idea of the general strike, which is upheld by the anarchists and other people lacking any experience in the field of economic struggle, is not worth discussing.”8 Even in the case of economic struggle for partial demands, trade unions under the influence of social-democracy were more and more inclined towards reformism and compromises with governments and enterprises, having recourse to strikes only in extreme circumstances. In their organizational setup the reformist unions were orientated towards a centralized operation (for example, in Germany strikes had to be sanctioned by the central industrial union association). In these labour unions a ramified and despotic bureaucracy took form. The model of a large organization with a multilevel structure for decision-making, and the assignment of projects to specially selected professionals, was based on the assumption that the rank-and-file members should have limited power and restricted access to resources. Full-time officers of labour unions were more interested in preserving and strengthening the structure of their organization than in taking part in a struggle the outcome of which was uncertain.9 Frequently union leaders preferred to avoid conducting strikes in order not to risk the money accumulated in their organization’s strike funds. In other cases the leadership of workers’ organizations compelled their members to terminate strikes, as happened, for example, in the course of the struggle of the Berlin metalworkers in December 1911. In this connection, the defeat of strike actions by German wage workers in the metallurgical, ceramic, tobacco, shoe-making, textile, and other branches of industry at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century led many activists throughout Europe to conclude that the performance of the German model of centralized trade unions had reached a dead end.10 Instead of direct strike action, reformist union leaders preferred to follow the practice of central “wage agreements” between enterprises and unions – agreements which were concluded between the unions and the business owners for specific occupations and territories and bound both sides for the duration of a mutually agreed period of time. Among the workers such actions provoked a growing indignation, since they were often saddled with unfavourable conditions and deprived of their right to have a say in decisions about labour questions which affected them in an important way. “On the whole and on all the most important questions, the central administration enjoys supreme authority…,” according to a brochure published in 1911 by the British Federation of Miners. “They, the leaders, are becoming ‘gentlemen’ and Members of Parliament and, as a result of their powerful positions, they have acquired an impressive social standing… . What really should be condemned is this politics of conciliation which finds a use for such leaders… .”11 In the words of the German trade union activist Karl Roche, “Within the workers’ movement itself, supposedly struggling to liquidate all class contradictions… two classes have formed” – the all-powerful “paid officials” and the applauding, voting “ordinary folk.”12

  • 1 See: A. Castel, De la Premiere Internationale a l’Association Internationale des Travailleurs (Marseille, 1995), pp. 13-15.
  • 2 See H.-J. Steinberg, “Zukunftsvorstellungen innerhalb der deutschen Sozialdemokratie vor dem 1. Weltkrieg,” Soziale Bewegungen. Jahrbuch 2: Auf dem Wege nach Utopia (Frankfurt a.M. / New York, 1985), pp. 48-58.
  • 3 C. Cornelissen, Uber die theoretische und wirtschaftliche Grundlagen des Syndikalismus,” in Forschungen zur Volkerpsychologie und Soziologie, Bd.2. Partei und Klasse im Lebensprozess der Gesellschaft (Leipzig, 1926), p. 63.
  • 4 See K. H. Roth (ed.), Die Wiederkehr der Proletaritat. Dokumentation der Debatte (Koln, 1994), p. 271.
  • 5 See M. Van der Linden and W. Thorpe, “Aufstieg und Niedergang des revolutionaren Syndikalismus,” in 1999. Zeitschrift fur Sozialgeschichte des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts. 1990, no. 3, p. 15.
  • 6 See W. Thorpe, ‘The Workers Themselves’, Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour, 1913-1923 (Dordrecht / Boston / London / Amsterdam, 1918), p. 24.
  • 7 C. Cornelissen, “Die neueste Entwicklung des Syndikalismus,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenchaft und Sozialpolitik, Bd.36, (Tubingen, 1913), p. 135.
  • 8 Cited by N. Luskin-Antonov, Очерки по новейшей истории Германии. 1890-1914 [Essays on the contemporary history of Germany, 1890-1914] (Moscow / Leningrad, 1925), p. 321.
  • 9 See K. Schonhoven, “Lokalismus – Berufsorientierung – Industrieverband: Zur Entwicklung der organisatgorischen Binnenstrukturen der deutschen Gewerkschaften vor 1914,” in W. J. Mommsen and H. G. Husung (eds.), Auf dem Wege zur Massengewerkschaft: die Entwicklung der Gewerkschaften in Deutschland und Grossbritannien 1880-1914 (Stuttgart, 1984), pp. 291, 295.
  • 10 C. Cornelissen, “Die neueste Entwicklung des Syndikalismus…,” p. 131. (n8)
  • 11 Cited by C. Cornelissen, “Die neueste Entwicklung…,” p. 128-129. (n8)
  • 12 K. Roche, Aus dem roten Sumpf oder: Wie es in einem nicht ganz kleinem Zentralverband hergeht (Berlin, 1909); reprint (Hamburg/Altona, 1990), p. 4.