Chapter 4: Revolutionary Syndicalism during the First World War

Submitted by Steven. on June 8, 2011

The First World War was a serious test for the internationalist and anti-militarist position proclaimed by the syndicalists. Some of them (Alexander Berkman, Antonio Bernardo, V. García, A. Shapiro, Bill Shatov) together with E. Malatesta and Emma Goldman signed a manifesto against the war, denouncing it as a war of aggression by both sides.

They declared their intention to “incite insurrection and organize revolution.” Others (like Christiaan Cornelissen) supported the position of P. Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Charles Malato, and a number of other prominent anarchists who rallied to the side of the Entente since they considered German imperialism the “greater evil.”

The decline of revolutionary syndicalism in France could be noted even before the war. The progress of industralization brought with it a temporary stabilization in standards of living and some increase in wages; strikes acquired a more peaceful character, and among the workers and labour unions there arose a inclination to solve problems through negotiations. The leaders of the CGT (its general secretary Léon Jouhaux, P. Monatte and others) were compelled more and more to take into account the reality of industrial development. “After 1910 the ideological pretensions of the revolutionary syndicalists and the actual behaviour of workers in the CGT itself began to diverge more and more... The Amiens compromise, which pointed to the future, had nothing to offer.” The outbreak of the war deepened the crisis of French revolutionary syndicalism. The federal bureau of the CGT did not proclaim a general strike against the war, but issued a call “to defend the nation.” During the war years, representatives of the CGT collaborated in various “mixed commissions” created by the State. At the same time, an antiwar opposition surfaced within the organization in 1915, led by Alphonse Merrheim and P. Monatte, and grouped around the newspaper La Vie ouvriere. During the next year the left revolutionary syndicalists formed a Committee of Syndicalist Defense (CDS) which, despite taking an extreme anti-war position which referred to the “Charter of Amiens,” achieved a large measure of independence from the left socialist opponents of the war. In 1917 the Committee supported strike action by the workers, and spoke out against the worsening of living conditions and the intensification of labour.

In Italy the question of what stance to take regarding the war lead to a split in the USI. The group led by the general secretary A. De Ambris endorsed participation in the war on the grounds that this would facilitate the “revolutionization” of the country (a position which was labelled “revolutionary interventionism”). However this group did not enjoy the support of the majority of members and organizations of the USI. A new general secretary was elected – Armando Borghi.

In 1915 the USI endorsed the idea of a general strike against the war, although lacking the practical possibility of carrying it out. Adherents of “interventionism” were expelled from a number of unions.

The American syndicalists of the IWW launched an active struggle against entry into the war, which provoked furious persecution on the part of the government and nationalists.

In 1915 the well known IWW activist Joe Hill was executed, in 1916 five union members were shot by police in an atmosphere of nationalist hysteria, and in 1917 1,200 members of the IWW were deported to the New Mexico desert in connection with a miners’ strike in Arizona. Meanwhile, the IWW was successful in helping large strikes in Wheatland (California, 1915) and the Mesabi Range (Minnesota, 1916).

In the spring of 1917, job actions and sabotage organized by the IWW inflicted significant losses on branches of industry – woodworking and copper mining – vitally important for the prosecution of war. Between 1916 and 1917 the number of members of the IWW grew from 40,000 to 75,000, and by the end of the summer of 1917 had swollen, according to various sources, to between 125,000 and 250,000.

In Germany the syndicalist movement was virtually paralyzed soon after the start of the war, and the FVdG and its press were banned. In Great Britain as well nothing in the way of active work occurred.

The longer the war continued, the worse the lives of the workers became. In many countries strikes flared up as well as hunger riots. Anarchists and syndicalists took an active part in them. In France in May 1918, a congress of revolutionary syndicalists came out in favour of a general revolutionary strike against the war. In protest demonstrations an especially active role was played by the metalworkers of the Loire and Paris region, resulting in substantial losses to the war industry. The movement was suppressed, activists were dispatched to the front, and the leader of the Committee of Syndicalist Defense Raymond Péricat was convicted of treason against the State.
In Spain (neutral, but economically sucked into the war) in 1916 workers all over the country protested against the rise in the cost of living; the country was paralyzed. The CNT signed a “revolutionary alliance” with the socialist General Workers’ Union (UGT). In May-June 1917 Spain stood on the threshold of revolution. In August a general strike broke out, on a scale unseen up to that time, accompanied by armed struggle. The outbreak was suppressed after a battle lasting many days.

In Portugal protests against increases in the cost of living and the number of unemployed workers constantly developed into acts of resistance which often were spontaneous in character. In September 1914 unrest flared up in Lisbon, and the first fatalities occurred. In the spring of 1915 unemployed workers seized the ministry of agriculture and destroyed it. Riots and mayhem gave way to strikes, organized by the trade unions. By 1917 the revolutionary syndicalists had achieved dominance in the National Workers’ Union (UON), completely overshadowing the socialists.

Regaining their composure after the first shock, the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists tried to re-establish regular international contacts. In 1915 an international antimilitarist congress was organized in the Spanish region of Galicia. It assembled not only many prominent Spanish working class anarchists (such as Ángel Pestaña, M. Andreu, F. Miranda, L. Bouza, Eusebio Carb_, Eleuterio Quintanilla, and others), but also delegates from Portugal (notably M. J. de Sousa), France, England, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba. At the meeting the question of an international general strike was discussed. The meeting also played an important role in renewing the Spanish CNT. In December 1916 the NAS of neutral Holland called on workers’ organizations of all countries to gather at a world congress of revolutionary syndicalism, but this idea was not carried out until the end of the war.

The inability of workers’ organizations to prevent World War I, the impotence of “neutral” syndicalism, and the increase in revolutionary sentiments among the labouring masses made changes in the syndicalist movement itself all the more urgent. “The Great War swept away neutral syndicalism,” noted A. Shapiro later. To many activists it became clear that syndicalism by itself was insufficient, that it was necessary to combine the self-organized workers’ movement with direct action animated by clear revolutionary ideas.