Chapter 17: Anarcho-syndicalism After World War II

Submitted by Steven. on June 15, 2011

Despite the hopes of the anarchists, World War II did not develop into social revolution; on the contrary, it led to the strengthening of national States and the establishment in Western Europe of a system of social partnership within the framework of “democratic corporatism” – collaboration between government, corporations, and trade unions. In Eastern Europe there were dictatorial regimes led by communist parties.

The East European governments suppressed all attempts to revive the libertarian movement. In Bulgaria in 1944 the Federation of Anarchist-Communists was re-established and in 1946 – a National Confederation of Labour. By 1947 there were 11,000 anarchists in the country (including 1,000 anarcho-syndicalists). But soon the libertarian organizations were banned and broken up, and their leading activists arrested.

In East Germany hundreds of members of anarchist and libertarian-socialist groups were arrested in 1948-1949, and the leader of the movement Willi Jelinek was murdered in prison in March 1952. The Polish syndicalist organizations which sprang up during the war years ceased to function after 1944, and in Hungary the anarchists were completely crushed after the strike of the “Csepel” workers, which was partially under their influence.

The anarcho-syndicalists of Spain and Portugal continued to struggle in the deep underground. The CNT tried to re-establish illegal syndicates while some activists preferred armed struggle with the Franco regime. Heavy repressions prevented the organization from rebuilding and it was set back again and again. The situation was complicated by a split in the CNT after 1946: one part of the organization rejected the mistakes committed during the period of revolution, while the other part insisted on a united front with other anti-Francoist forces; as a result the organization lapsed into a deep crisis. Unity was re-established only in 1960. Under these conditions the main burden of work was placed on the Spanish anarchist emigration in France where in the 1940’s there were no fewer than 30,000 members of the Confederation, issuing various newspapers and journals.

Under the conditions of the Salazar dictatorship the activity of the Portuguese CGT gradually died down; the activity of underground syndicates and issuing of illegal publications came to an end in the 1960’s.

The anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists of South America found themselves under heavy pressure from State power.

In 1946 the Argentine FORA could still come up with 3,000 people for a May 1 demonstration. It offered stubborn resistance to the regime of General J. Perón, organizing, despite restrictions and prohibitions, strikes of bakers and dockers in 1946-1948 and demonstrating against interference by the State in labour conflicts. However in the following years the shutting down of independent labour unions and libertarian publications struck the movement with new blows. The influx of new members into the organization almost stopped, and contact with the new generation of social activists did not come about. The veterans faded away but there was no one to replace them. In neighbouring Uruguay the FORU shrank to small groups. At the beginning of the 1950’s the Chilean CGT and the Local Labour Federation of La Paz in Bolivia ceased to exist: they were forced to join unified national labour union centrals.

In the majority of countries of Western Europe anarchosyndicalists after the war had the possibility of legal activity.

But the revival of the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements on a massive scale did not occur. Only in France for a brief moment did things take off: the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) united several tens of thousands of workers (mainly in Paris, Bordeaux, Marseilles, and Toulouse). But the organization soon began to experience great material difficulties and a dearth of staunch activists. The majority of workers who joined it soon left for other, more moderate labour unions, and the French anarchists regarded anarchosyndicalism as a factor which was splitting the workers’ movement. Soon the French CNT shrank to the scale of small labour union initiatives. The anarchist movement of Italy also took a position for trade union unity and against a special anarcho-syndicalist union movement. The re-organization of the formerly powerful USI was announced only in 1950, but it remained an insignificant organization. The ranks of the Swedish SAC remained relatively numerous, but the numbers also fell from 22,000 in 1945 to 16,000 in 1957.

“The most profound explanation of the disappearance of syndicalism as a mass movement must take into consideration not only transitory factors, such as government repression, but also changes in capitalist society,” justly noted the historians M. Van der Linden and W. Thorpe. First of all, one should note carefully R. Rocker’s warning about the negative influence on working class radicalism of the rationalization of capitalist production. Actually, as researchers have noted, beginning from the 1920’s and really taking off after the Second World War, the automation of production processes, the symbol of which was the introduction of the conveyor belt, favoured the extreme specialization and division of labour into partial operations. The new social type of “mass specialized worker” had no sense of production as a whole and therefore did not press demands to take full control over it. The axis of social contradiction was displaced from the sphere of production with its problems of the content of labour and the independence of the producer to the sphere of distribution of the produced surplus product and consumption. This corresponded to a decline in the radical workers’ movement, which had arisen as an alternative to the industrial-Capitalist system and was oriented to the struggle for control by the workers over production.

Parallel to these developments was the growing tendency towards State interference in the economic and social sphere, which after the Second World War led to the formation of a model of the “Social State” or “Welfare State.” The Keynsian policy of stimulating purchasing power led to an increase in prosperity of workers in the developed Capitalist countries and gave the workers a vested interest in the functioning of the system as a whole and expectations of satisfying their growing consumer needs within the framework of a “social partnership” model.1 The new realities, as researchers have noted, confronted the syndicalist organizations with “only three possibilities, each of which would have disastrous consequences for them.

The movement could: (1) continue to maintain its own principles – in which case it would be subject to inevitable marginalization; (2) completely change course to accommodate themselves to the new conditions – in which case they would have to renounce syndicalist principles; (3) if the first two possibilities were rejected, either dissolve themselves or, what amounts to the same thing, join a non-syndicalist labour union.”

The IWA went the first way, waiting for the moment when conditions for the anarcho-syndicalist movement would become more favourable again, and its ideas would again find resonance in society. Taking up its work anew after the Second World War, it provided a home for Spanish revolutionary-emigrants, small labour unions, and action groups in a number of European and Latin American countries. After the Spanish CNT in exile adopted a decision about a return to the anarchist principles of rejection of collaboration with statist political forces and an orientation to social revolution, it proposed at the 7th Congress of the IWA (1951) to repeal the amendment about “tactical autonomy” introduced in 1938. After a long and animated discussion, accompanied by a split in the International, such a resolution was finally adopted at the 9th Congress (1956). This allowed the FORA to return to the international organization. Delegates at the next , 10th Congress (1958), acting on a motion by the Argentinans, announced that “only those groups can belong to the IWA which recognize as their goal libertarian (anarchist) communism and federalism.” In connection with these ideological discussions, the Swedish SAC and the Dutch Syndicalists left the IWA in 1958.

SAC continued to consider itself a “libertarian-syndicalist” labour union, but in practice it followed the second path – a revision of anarchist principles under the guise of “modernization.”

A strong influence on the ideological views of the “revisionists” was exerted by the German emigrant-syndicalist Rüdiger, who had settled in Sweden at the end of the 1930’s.

Already during the period of the Spanish Revolution he had called for a revision of a number of traditional tenets of anarcho-syndicalism, in essence proposing to renounce the struggle for the establishment of an anarcho-communist society, acknowledge the notion of a “transition period,” etc.

Now Rüdiger proposed to repudiate anarchist “orthodoxy” and instead of liquidating the State, try to reform it. “... As a result of changes undergone by the State since the time of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, and also Marx and Landauer, one can assert that the destruction of the State would not only mean the destruction of the apparatus of oppression, but also of a whole complex of social functions which are vitally important. It is impossible to arouse the people for such an action. Under the conditions of social relations today, more than previously we are faced with the question about transforming social functions which are today being carried out by the State into genuinely social functions . In this struggle one often has recourse to the path of reform.” Rüdiger declared that it followed that one should not wait for “social revolution,” but “should act now inside the existing State and economic structure for the renewal of the (democratic) system of representation,” joining for this purpose in alliances with other political forces and tendencies and even allowing for thepossibility of participation in local elections.

As practical way of getting involved in carrying out functions of the Welfare State and simultaneously increasing the popularity of their labour union central, the “revisionists” in SAC advocated participating in the administration of unemployment insurance funds. Such funds were financed by enterprises and the State, but also by contributions from trade union members. The operation of the fund bureaus was entrusted to the unions. Syndicalists had traditionally fought against State interference in labour questions and refused to participate in organs of social partnership which were subsided by the State. But now the “revisionist” wing of SAC sought to have the union central join in carrying out reforms of the social insurance system.

In the course of an internally organized referendum in 1952, the members of SAC voted to approve a change in their statement of principles and create an unemployment insurance fund run by the syndicalist union central. According to a 1952 declaration, the goal of the syndicalists was stated to be the implementation of “industrial democracy.” Radical means of direct action (such as violent opposition and sabotage of production) were perceived as senseless. SAC proposed to hand over the administration of enterprises to worker collectives and expressed its intention to undertake efforts to “introduce workers’ control in private, municipal, and State enterprises.” As Evert Arvidsson, editor of the trade union central’s press organ Arbetaren, explained, “We have completely renounced the ‘magic wand’ of revolution.” The Swedish syndicalists now considered partial reforms to be “the practical means of influencing development in the desired direction... . SAC regards the progressive democratization of the economy as its primary task... . The basic idea consists in gradually transferring economic power from the shareholders to the producers.” In this connection, SAC endorsed the participation of worker representatives in the management of private enterprises. At the same time, Swedish syndicalism renounced the role of alternative to the industrial-capitalist system and occupied a position on the left, oppositionist flank of the Welfare State system.

The creation by SAC of unemployment insurance funds as an element of the “Swedish model of the Welfare State” encouraged the involvement of workers in the syndicalist ranks for a time and slowed the decline of Swedish syndicalism. But on the other hand, the re-orientation of SAC led to a breakdown of relations between the trade union central and the international anarcho-syndicalist movement, which subjected the Swedish syndicalists to harsh criticism for their reformism and collaboration with the State.2

The influence of the anarcho-syndicalist International reached its lowest point in the 1960’s. During this period anarcho-syndicalists were compelled to occupy themselves mainly with theoretical work: the analysis of contemporary social development, the evolution of Capitalism and the State, and the situations in the countries of so-called “actually existing socialism” (which the IWA identified as State Capitalism) and in the developing countries; an assessment of the potential of the co-operative movement, and proposals about the agrarian question and about counteraction to the threat of war. After the global wave of student and worker protests in 1968-69 and the liquidation of the Spanish Francoist regime (1975-77), it was possible to observe a growth in the interest in anarcho-syndicalism in Europe and North America. There was a rebirth of the CNT in Spain and structures of the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI). Anarchosyndicalist groups revived in a number of other countries.

The IWA was busy in these years with an analysis of global problems and new social movements, trying to evaluate them from a social-revolutionary point of view. In the 1980’s the processes of globalization of the economy, transition to neoliberalism, and dismantling of the model of the “Welfare State” throughout the whole world was accompanied by a crisis of the statist left-wing (social-democratic and communist) parties and the trade unions under their influence.

The collapse of communist party regimes in the USSR and East European countries took place, social-democratic parties adopted a number of the tenets of neoliberalism, and labour unions found themselves helpless to prevent real cutbacks in pay for many categories of workers, as well as reductions in social benefits and other gains made by wage workers over the previous several decades. There evolved a process of “precarization” – the introduction of an unstable, unprotected by legally enforceable labour relations, system of casual employment and worsening working conditions, as well as a model of “flexible” organization of working hours which were arranged according to the interests of the enterprise rather than its workers. Anarcho-syndicalists perceived these new developments at the end of the century as a sort of “challenge of the times” to which the “traditional left” was unable to respond. From their point of view, the breakup of the USSR, the collapse of communist party regimes, and the advent of the free market model with its “neoliberal totalitarianism” – all this indicated that “the notion of State control, which was the basis of the politics of both the revolutionary and the social-democratic left, had suffered defeat...

A fundamental re-thinking was necessary,” to a significant extent a return to the discussions between the libertarian and authoritarian socialists in the First International. “The core of any socialist re-examination must be an alternative to Capitalism... Capitalism cannot be reformed, it must be abolished. We must learn the most important lesson of the history of the 20th century: there is no State which can guarantee freedom to the workers, quite the opposite.”

In the 1990’s a revival of the world anarcho-syndicalist movement took place. New sections and groups of supporters of the IWA appeared, including ones in Russia, Eastern Europe, and America; after the start Argentine revolution of 2001 a rebirth of the FORA began. Sections in Spain, Italy, and France succeeded in becoming active, although small, labour unions. Now, rather than trying to absorb the whole workers’ movement, they are oriented towards the development and radicalization of self-managed and self-organized workers’ initiatives, independent of reformist unions and parties – initiatives in the course of which all decisions are made at general meetings (assemblies) of workers and methods of direct action are implemented.

At the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, anarcho-syndicalists of many countries took an active role in social and labour conflicts. The Spanish CNT, with a membership of 10,000, is the most noteworthy in this respect. The toughest strikes in Spain are associated with the CNT.

Thus, in 1985-1986 on the initiative of the members of the CNT, the movement by workers against the planned closing of shipyards in Puerto Real grew into a broad social protest which was accompanied by the occupation of enterprises by workers and mass demonstration by the inhabitants of the city. The leadership of the struggle was not concentrated in trade union committees and other representative organs. All basic decisions were adopted directly by workers at their general meetings. Characteristically, these assemblies of workers took place without the sanction of the bureaucrats of the official unions; the proposals of the CNT were always adopted, despite the attempts of other unions which failed to obtain the adoption of their own resolutions. In such a way it was established that every Thursday the workers would occupy the shipyards and hold general meetings in them.

During the strike general assemblies of the inhabitants of the towns and villages of the region were held on a weekly basis. Anyone who was interested in the goings-on, regardless of whether they worked in the shipyards, could come to these assemblies, vote, and participate in the process of adopting decisions on questions which interested them. At the general meetings decisions were adopted about concrete measures and forms of struggle, as well as about the carrying out of acts of sabotage and direct action.

Shock troops were hurled against the rebellious city. More then 1,000 police were drawn from all corners of the country to Puerto Real in an attempt to halt the revolt. In response, people began to put up barricades on the outskirts of the city, not wishing to allow access to the police. People threw rocks, furniture, any kind of junk from rooftops at police vehicles. They engaged in street battles with the cops. Frequently barricades were set up on the railway, the highway, and a strategic bridge, telephone poles were cut down, etc. The struggle of the workers and other city residents brought them victory.

The new activization of the anarcho-syndicalist strike movement in Spain carried over into the beginning of the 21st century. The CNT organized or supported such actions as the strike of garbage collectors in the Andalusian city of Tomares (it lasted 134 days), “indefinite-term” strikes of railway cleaners and crane operators in Seville, municipal workers in Adra, workers at the “Mercadona” department store near Barcelona (lasting 180 days), protest marches with many thousands of participants against the social-economic policies of the government, etc. The Italian syndicalists of the USI took part in a series of General Strikes, led by “alternative” labour unions (including some anti-militarism strikes)...

Despite the fact that in Spain, France, and Italy new splits took place with breakaway groups trying to achieve a mass base at the expense of jettisoning a number of anarchosyndicalist principles (rejection of political parties, nonparticipation in organs of social partnership in production, etc.) ,3 the IWA is striving to preserve its traditional role as an alternative to the industrial-capitalist system as a whole. Playing the role of “catalyst” for self-organization, the anarcho-syndicalists hope that as people stand up for their own rights and interests on a day-to-day basis, they will acquire the skills and structures of social self-management.

  • 1 One of the first to analyze this phenomonen was the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, cf.: H. Marcuse, Одномерный человек [One-Dimensional Man] (Moscow, 1994), pp. 38-44.
  • 2 The new course did not save SAC. The organization failed to find a common language with the 1960’s generation of “youth rebellion.” Changes in the structure of Swedish industry and the crisis in the “Swedish model” at the end of the 20th century inflicted more damage on syndicalism in Sweden. In 2002 only about 7,000 members remained in SAC.
  • 3 Thus, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) which united syndicates splitting from the Spanish CNT in 1984; and the French CNT with headquarters on “la rue des Vignoles” in Paris, which in 1995 separated from CNT-AIT France; along with other reformist labour union centrals take part in elections to committees – organs of “social partnership” – formed for the purpose of carrying on negotiations with business owners. Like other “official” unions, the CGT receives subsidies from the State and has full-time officials.