Chapter 8 Anarcho-Syndicalism

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

THE FOUNDERS OF Anarchism, in rejecting the state, postulated a society that would be based on the satisfaction of the economic needs of man by means of voluntary functional organisations of the workers, acting in free co-operation. The necessity remained for the evolution of a method by which this could be attained and of a revolutionary tactic that could work through the workers’ economic life under capitalism towards the overthrow of the state. This revolutionary method and tactic were to appear in syndicalism, which represents great strategy of the social revolution, the manifestation in concrete, immediate terms of the theory of anarchism. The development of syndicalism is closely associated with that of anarchism, springing from the same rooted hatred of external authority and the realisation that in their economic aspect the state and capitalism are most vulnerable.

Syndicalism might be described as an extension to the whole field of economic activity of the idea of producers’ co-operation, by which men, instead of being organised downwards in political forms such as the state, would be organised upwards in economic or functional forms, such as the syndicate. The syndicate would be built up within the state society, and would become both the means of struggle for the change in society; the workers would control and work by free consent the various industries within the community. As the basis of society would be economic (concerned with ‘administering things’ instead of ‘governing men’) these syndicates, with their local and national federations would be the basic forms of voluntary social organisation.

Syndicalism favours a change in society, not through parliamentary means or a political revolution which would merely change one government for another, but by the direct economic action of the workers, expressed in such methods as the boycott, sabotage, ca’canny, the strike, above all the General Strike, and aiming at the true revolution and the abolition of property and the state.

Within the present system, syndicalism differs from ordinary trade unionism in that it has no allegiance with reformist politics and is uncompromising in its attitude to capitalism. It does not seek, by means of compromise, to get the best possible deal for the workers under capitalism. Syndicalists realise that the workers can gain no permanent amelioration of conditions under an exploiting system, and they are therefore entirely revolutionary in their aims. They maintain the day-to-day struggle for better conditions, but regard this primarily as a tactic for embarrassing their enemies and preparing the workers for the revolutionary struggle which is the only means of ending government and exploitation.

For this reason, the syndicalists in their organisations do not adopt the irrelevant functions of modern trade unions. They are not interested in friendly societies or coffin clubs. For them the liberation of the workers from the chains of property and the state is of paramount importance. Nor do they adopt the separatist tendencies of trade unions, which support the interests of one section of the workers in an industry, one craft or function, and so erect barriers among the workers and, by their own divisions, present a scattered front to their enemies. Syndicalists hold that the workers should be organised according to industry, not according to craft, and that the workers in each industry should form a single syndicate and so present one front of attack against their masters.

The Syndicalists, realising the corrupting nature of power wherever it may arise, reject the centralist and authoritarian structure of the trade union. Instead, they adopt a federal organisation, in which local units are autonomous and carry out actions without reference to any central executive authority. In this way greater elasticity and speed of action is gained and there is no chance of the betrayal of the workers by a governing bureaucracy. Affairs concerning the syndicate as a whole are conducted by delegates, who are allowed only to voice the will of the workers who elected them, and there is a minimum of officials elected for short periods, after which they return to bench or field, and subject to recall if their actions dissatisfy the workers. In this way the rise of a bureaucracy divorced from the workers is avoided and the revolutionary nature of the syndicate preserved.

Just as in England the anarchist theory appeared in the work of Godwin several decades before the development of continental anarchism, so there arose in England the first manifestation of syndicalism, in the early revolutionary trades unions which grew under the influence of Robert Owen, the disciple of Godwin, in the early part of the nineteenth century. The most important of these unions was the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.

During the latter part of 1833, Owen was working towards revolutionary organisation of the workers, and at a meeting of his followers in October he declared: “It is intended that national arrangements shall be formed to include all the working classes in the great organisation, and that each department shall become acquainted with what is going on in other departments; that all individual competition is to cease; that all manufactures are to be carried on by ‘National Companies’.” (In case “National Companies” should be taken to mean “nationalisation” it is necessary to explain that Owen meant organisations operated by the workers, and advocated no kind of state control.)

The Grand National Consolidated was founded in January 1834, in succession to the Society for National Regeneration, which had advocated direct action for the eight-hour day and other reforms. In some ways it resembled the modern trade union, e.g., in the centralisation of control, by which no strike for an advance in wages could take place without the consent of the Executive Council. Strikes against reductions could be declared by the local bodies. It also resembled the trade union in instituting funds for sick benefit and funeral expenses. Its difference from the trade union is shown in the celebrated Rule 46:

“That although the design of the Union is, in the first instance, to raise the wages of the workmen, or prevent any further reduction therein, and to diminish the hours of labour, the great and ultimate object of it must be to establish the paramount rights of Industry and Humanity, by instituting such measures as shall effectually prevent the ignorant, idle and useless part of society from having that undue control over the fruit of our toil, which through the agency of a vicious money system, they at present possess: and that consequently, the Unionists should lose no opportunity of mutually encouraging and assisting each other in bringing about A DIFFERENT ORDER OF THINGS, in which the really useful and intelligent part of society only shall have the direction of its affairs, and in which well-directed industry and virtue shall meet their just distinction and reward, and vicious idleness its merited contempt and destitution.”

It is unnecessary to emphasise the similarity between syndicalism and the ideas expressed both in this declaration and in the various pronouncements of Owen. Nor did these statements constitute mere lip service to an ideal. Owen and the more responsible leaders believed firmly in the necessity for a revolutionary change. They also had an optimistic belief that this change could come “suddenly upon society like a thief in the night,” by the application of the millennial general strike. But they all underestimated the staying power of their enemies, and the Union spent itself in local strikes before it could attempt the great manoeuvre for the social revolution.

The early success of the Union was phenomenal and demonstrates the extent of revolutionary feeling at that time. Very soon its membership had reached half a million, and extended to many trades in which there had been no previous organisation - notably the agricultural labourers who produced its most famous heroes, the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

The Grand National fell because it was built on an easy optimism; both among leaders and the rank and file. All imagined capitalism would fall like the walls of Jericho at the first blast of the Owenite trumpets. They made little use of their opportunities, and there is no evidence that they attempted to make the great disputes of 1834 the basis for any wide revolutionary movement. They contemplated, setting up co-operative workshops for strikers and unemployed, but apparently had not thought of the seizure of the factories by stay-in strikes. Their ideas of direct action were rudimentary to a degree. Nor, in that interim between agricultural and industrial economy, before society had become reliant on certain forms of transport and power, could a general strike have had any success unless it had included the majority of agricultural workers and the transport workers, who seem at that time to have been little organised. For the time being the attentions of the workers were diverted to the political movement of Chartism and when the trades unions revived it was in the reformist character they possess today. Large-scale revolutionary unionism disappeared from Europe for some fifty years.

It appeared again when syndicalism grew out of the peculiar circumstances in which the French trade union movement arose during the 1880’s. Throughout the early part of the nineteenth century, since the veto imposed by the ‘revolutionary’ Constituent Assembly in 1790, trade unions had been forbidden in France, because even the Jacobins could not bring themselves to admit the right of any free association to infringe on the prerogative of the divine state. In 1864, the Emperor Napoleon III, who had ingenious ideas of ruling by division, attempted to play the working class malcontents against the bourgeoisie by granting in principle the right of workmen to form trades unions. His edict remained a dead letter, and the legal persecution of the unions continued until, by a law passed in 1884, the Third Republic granted the right to form associations, for the defence of economic interests only.

The unions allowed by this act arose from a working class already impregnated with the revolutionary virus of the French nineteenth century. Many of the founders had fought at the barricades of the Commune and had maintained the underground struggle during the bitter years of tyranny under the Thiers administration. Moreover, political currents in France at the end of the nineteenth century had such an extreme and stinking turgidity that men with any integrity were turning aside in distaste from politics. In such circumstances many of the men who found their way into the new syndicates were in reality more concerned with the social revolution than with the day-to-day demands of the workers. Prominent among these were many anarchists, such as Pouget, Pataud, Pelloutier, Delesalle and Yvetot, who saw in the syndicates the kind of economic organisations which had already been foreshadowed by the anarchist theorists and by means of which the libertarian society could be established through the direct action of the workers.

The C.G.T., the French trade union organisation, was never completely revolutionary. It did, indeed, maintain for long an independence of political parties which made it a good seedbed for revolutionary ideas, but at no time were more than half of its members imbued with revolutionary motives. The remainder were reformists who saw in unionism the apparatus for safeguarding class interests within existing society. Nevertheless, the revolutionary syndicalists were extremely influential within the movement. Pouget and Pataud were secretaries of the Confederation, and Pouget edited its newspaper, La Voix du Peuple. The anarchist carpenter Torteilier introduced the conception of the General Strike, and Yvetot and other anarchists were responsible for the assumption of an anti-militarist and anti-governmental attitude.

Much attention has been given, particularly outside France, to the ideas of Sorel and his followers. For the most part their influence has been exaggerated. It is true that in 1899 Sorel, a middle-class intellectual, filled with enthusiasm for the new movement he saw rising about him, founded a periodical called Le Mouvement Socialiste, in which he elaborated an intellectual attitude towards syndicalism. But he had no direct connection with the syndicalist movement, whose ideas were evolved independently of and, indeed, before the appearance of Sorel, and the real syndicalists certainly did not support his mythical interpretation of syndicalism.

In the early years of the twentieth century the idea of syndicalism gained strength. In France the workers showed their growing awareness by a series of great strikes. Syndicalism as a mass movement spread to the other Latin countries, particularly Italy and Spain. In Spain the C.N.T. was founded in 1911, and, in spite of savage persecution, grew rapidly until by 1919 it was the largest revolutionary syndicalist organisation in the world with more than a million members.

In England the Syndicalist Education League was founded by Tom Mann and Guy Bowman, and for a period both before and after the 1914-18 war, syndicalism, although it did not reach the proportions of a mass movement, was very influential among the militant workers, particularly in certain industrial areas such as the Clyde. And in 1905 was founded in America the Industrial Workers of the World, an organisation whose objects were closely similar to those of syndicalists. The anarchists, who had carried out such a bitter campaign in the America of the nineteenth century, joined the I.W.W., and eventually came to guide its policy, with the result that it was, and has remained the only important revolutionary organisation in the U.S.A. and Canada.

The world war marked a hiatus in the development of syndicalism but the arrival of peace in a Europe sick with discontent and misery gave it a great impetus in the Latin countries and strong movements arose in some South American countries and Scandinavia. In December 1922 an International Conference was held in Berlin, where all the important revolutionary syndicalist organisations were represented, with the exception of the Spanish C.N.T., then forced to work underground through the Rivera terror.
This conference made a declaration of the principles of Revolutionary Syndicalism which closely resemble the ideas propagated by the anarchist theorists, and demonstrate the organic connection which exists between the two doctrines and which led naturally to their fusion in the synthesis of Anarcho-Syndicalism. *

These principles, which included a repudiation of the fallacious theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, are not merely a statement of belief. They represent also the reaction of the syndicalist movement against the Communist regime in Russia. The Bolshevik leaders, recognising the influence of syndicalism in the Latin countries and America, had attempted to draw the movement into the ambit of the Third International. Negotiations were actually started, for the syndicalists still believed the October revolution to be a real social revolution, but the visits of delegations to Russia brought about a realisation of the true nature of Bolshevism, and as Bakunin in the previous century had found himself impelled to oppose Marxist Communism, so were the international syndicalists obliged to denounce its more grandiose manifestation in the twentieth century.
The Berlin conference marked the climax of the international syndicalist movement. The Marxists had an advantage by mere fact of the existence in Russia of a state that paid lip service to workers’ control, and were able to divert many of the militant workers from syndicalism, with the consequence that, except in Spain where the C.N.T. eventually reached a membership of 2½ millions, the syndicalist bodies, although large, remained minority bodies.

In consequence, when totalitarianism spread over Europe, the syndicalists were prevented from decisive and successful action by the fact that the majority of the workers followed either communists or parliamentary social democrats, both of whom retreated and betrayed their supporters when the ruling class attacked. In Italy, for instance, the Unione Sindicale Italiana, in co-operation with the Unione Anarchica Italiana, declared a General Strike in 1922 to avert the impending threat of Fascism, but in this they were opposed by the other working class organisations and the strike failed because of its fragmentary nature.

But before the twilight of the total state settled over the continent, anarcho-syndicalism had, in one country, an opportunity of proving itself in practice. That country was Spain, where the working class revolution that broke out to combat Franco’s reactionary assault resulted in a period of workers’ control in industry and agriculture, during which the practice of syndicalism proved itself more efficient in the administration of industrial affairs than any of the systems that preceded it. The revolution and the system of workers’ control were eventually destroyed, not by Franco but by the republican government and its jackals, the Communists, but not before the syndicalists of Spain had proved decisively that the methods of free organisation advocated by syndicalists and anarchists will actually work more easily than those of government parties and will cause an immediate increase in industrial efficiency and in the welfare of the workers.

Syndicalism may appear much weaker today than it was twenty years ago, but its eclipse will be temporary. The present world crisis has shown the failure of every other social doctrine that has promised to lead the workers to the millennium of freedom, and when the needs of the people are once again asserted in a revolutionary period, anarcho-syndicalism will stand as the one social method by which the free, classless society can be attained, and the evils of government be abolished for ever.

* See Appendix.