What is revolutionary syndicalism?

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Ever since 1968, and especially since the collapse of the Eastern bloc, many of those who want to work for the revolution have turned their backs on the experience of the Russian revolution and the 3rd International, to look for lessons for the proletariat's struggle and organisation in another tradition: “revolutionary syndicalism” (sometimes known as “anarcho-syndicalism”).[1]

This current appeared at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in some countries played an important role up until the 1930s. Its main characteristic was its rejection (or at the least, its considerable underestimation) of the proletariat's need to create a political party, whether for the struggle within capitalism, or in capitalism's revolutionary overthrow: the union was considered to be the only possible form of organisation. In fact, the approach of those who turn towards the syndicalist tradition springs in large part from the discredit that the very idea of political organisation has suffered as a result of the experience of Stalinism: first, the brutal repression in the USSR itself, then of the workers' revolts in East Germany and Hungary during the 1950s; the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; the French CP's sabotage of the workers' struggles during May 1968; then the repression once again of the Polish workers' struggles at the beginning of the 1970s, etc. This situation has worsened since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the ruling class' disgusting campaigns aimed at identifying the collapse of Stalinism with the bankruptcy of communism and of marxism, thereby dealing a heavy blow at any idea of political regroupment on the basis of marxist principles.

Learning the lessons of history

One of the proletariat's great strengths is its ability to return constantly to its past defeats and errors, in order to understand them and to draw out the lessons that they hold for the present and future struggle. As Marx said: “proletarian revolutions (...) constantly criticise themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). The experience of revolutionary syndicalism in the workers' movement is no exception to this necessity of critical examination in order to understand its lessons. To do so, we need to place syndicalist ideas and action in their historical context, which alone allows us to place their origins within the history of the workers' movement as a whole.

This is why we have decided to undertake a series of articles (to which this one serves as introduction), on the history of revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism. We will try to give an answer to the following questions:

- What principles and methods distinguish the syndicalist current?

- Has syndicalism left any valid lessons for the historic struggle of the working class?

- What conclusions should we draw from its betrayals, most notably in 1914 (the French CGT takes part in the national “Sacred Union” government from the very outset of the war), and in 1937 (participation of the Spanish CNT in the governments of both the Catalan Generalitat and the Madrid Republic during the civil war)?

- Has syndicalism any perspective to offer the working class today?

We will base our reply on the working class' concrete experience of syndicalism, through an analysis of several important periods in the life of the proletariat:

- The history of the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), strongly influenced if not dominated by the anarcho-syndicalists, from its formation until the war of 1914-18.

- The history of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States up until the 1920s.

- The history of the shop-stewards' movement in Britain before and during World War I.

- The history of the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) during the revolutionary wave that followed the Russian revolution, until it collapsed in the civil war of 1936-37.

- Finally, we will conclude with an examination of the concrete reality of syndicalism today, and of the currents that claim to belong to this tradition.

The purpose of this series is not to provide a detailed chronology of the various syndicalist organisations, but to demonstrate how syndicalism's principles have not only proven themselves inadequate as a compass for the proletariat's struggle for its emancipation, but in certain circumstances have even contributed to dragging it onto the terrain of the bourgeoisie. This historic, materialist approach will demonstrate the profound difference between anarchism and marxism, which is expressed particularly in their different attitudes towards the betrayals that have occurred within both the socialist and the anarchist movements.

The anarchists never hesitate to point the finger at the great betrayals of the socialist and communist movements: the socialist parties' participation in the war of 1914-18, and the Stalinist counter-revolution during the 1920s and 30s. They claim that this is the inevitable result of the “authoritarian” heritage passed from Marx to Stalin via Lenin; in short, a kind of “original sin”, in which they agree completely with all the bourgeoisie's propaganda about the “death of communism”. Their attitude is very different when it comes to the anarchists' own betrayals: neither the anti-German patriotism of Kropotkin or James Guillaume in 1914, nor the French CGT's unfailing support for the government of Sacred Union during the 1914-18 war, nor the CNT's participation in the bourgeois governments of the Spanish republic, can in their eyes, call into question the eternal “principles” of anarchism.

In the marxist movement, by contrast, the betrayals have always been fought and explained by the left.[2]

The struggle of the lefts was never limited to a mere “reminder” of marxist principles. It was always a practical and theoretical effort to understand and to demonstrate where the origins of the betrayal lay, how it could be explained by changes in the historical, material situation of capitalism and especially how the change in situation had rendered obsolete the methods of struggle which up to then had proven appropriate in the struggle of the working class.

There is no equivalent amongst the anarchists and the anarcho-syndicalists, who continue to accord their principles an eternal, purely moral value, empty of any historic content. Faced with a “betrayal”, there is therefore nothing to be done but to reassert the same eternal values, and this is why, unlike marxism, the anarchist movement has never produced any left fractions. This is also why the real revolutionaries in the French syndicalist movement of 1914 (around Rosmer and Monatte) did not try to form a left current within the syndicalist movement, but turned instead towards bolshevism.

The historical context

As we have seen above, at the heart of the divergence between the revolutionary syndicalist current and marxism lies the question of the organisational form that the working class needs for its struggle against capitalism. In fact, this question could not be understood overnight. The proletariat is the revolutionary class whose historic task is the overthrow of capitalism: that does not mean that it sprang fully formed into capitalist society, like Athena from the head of Zeus. On the contrary, the working class has had to win its consciousness at the price of enormous efforts and often bitter defeats. From the outset of the long road to its emancipation, the proletariat has had to confront two fundamental requirements:

- the need for all the workers to struggle collectively in the defence of their interests (first of all within capitalism, then for its overthrow);

- the need to bend their thinking towards the general goals of their struggle, and how these can be achieved.

Indeed, the whole history of the workers' movement throughout the 19th century was marked by constant efforts to find the most appropriate forms of organisation to answer these two fundamental needs, which, concretely, were to develop both a general organisation in order to regroup all the workers in struggle, and a political organisation, one of whose essential tasks is to give a clear perspective to these struggles.

The period from the early formation of the working-class until the Paris commune was marked by a whole series of efforts at proletarian organisation, in general strongly influenced by the specific history of the workers' movement in each country. During this period, one of the main tasks of the working-class and its organisational efforts was still to assert itself as a specific class separate from other classes in society (the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie), with which it might still occasionally share common objectives (such as the overthrow of the feudal order).

In this historical context, marked by the immaturity of a still-developing and inexperienced proletariat, these two fundamental needs of the working class found expression in organisations which either tended to turn towards the past (like the French "compagnons" who looked back to the feudal Guild system), or else failed to understand the need for a general organisation of the class in order to combat the capitalist order, despite their effective radical critique of capitalist society. Thus the proletariat's first political organisations were often characterised by a "sectarian" vision, which saw the revolution as the task, not of the class as a whole, but of a minority of plotters who would seize power in a coup d'etat, to place it afterwards in the hands of people. From this tradition come such great figures of the workers' movement as Gracchus Babeuf and Auguste Blanqui. During the same period, the Utopian socialists (the best-known being Fourier and Saint-Simon in France and Robert Owen in Britain) worked out their plans for a future society designed to replace that capitalist society, which they denounced mercilessly, and often with great insight.

The first mass working-class organisations often expressed both the tendency to seek an illusory return to the past, and also on occasions an intuition of the class' destiny which went well beyond its capacities at the time: on the one hand, for example, the clandestine trade union organisation in Britain at the end of the 18th century (which went under the name of the "Army of Redressers" under the command of the mythical General Ludd) often expressed a longing by the workers for a return to their artisan status; on the other hand, we find the Grand National Consolidated Union,[3] which aimed, at the beginning of the 19th century, to unite the various corporatist movements in a revolutionary general strike, in a Utopian anticipation of the Soviets which were to be created a century later.

The bourgeoisie recognised very early on the danger that the mass organisation of workers represented for it: in 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, the “Loi Chapelier” banned all forms of workers' association, including simple friendly societies for mutual economic assistance in the face of unemployment or illness.

As it developed, the proletariat asserted itself more and more as an autonomous class in relation to the other classes in society. In British Chartism, we can see both the embryo of the political class party as well as the first separation of the proletariat from the radical petty bourgeoisie. The wave of struggles which ended with the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 (and therefore also of Chartism) has left us the principles incorporated in the Communist Manifesto. Nonetheless, the idea of a true proletarian political party was still to emerge, since the First International created in the 1860s combined the characteristics both of the political party and of the unitary mass organisation.

The Paris Commune of 1871, followed by the Hague Congress of the First International in 1872, marked a watershed in the development of workers' organisations. The ability of the working masses to go beyond the conspiratorial practice of the Blanquists was clearly demonstrated by their capacity for organisation, both in the success of the economic struggles of the workers organised in the International Workingmen's Association, and in the creation of the Commune, the first working-class power in history. Henceforward, only the anarchists with their ideology of the "exemplary act", in particular the followers of Bakunin,[4] remained adepts of the ultra-minority conspiracy as a means of action. At the same time, the Commune had demonstrated the absurdity of the idea that the workers could simply ignore political activity (in other words, immediate demands made on the state and the revolutionary perspective of the seizure of political power).

The ebb in both the struggle and in class consciousness following the crushing defeat of the Commune meant that these lessons could not be drawn immediately. But the 30 years which followed the Commune witnessed a decantation within the proletariat's understanding of how to organise: on the one hand, the trade union organisation for the defence of the economic interests of each corporation or trade,[5] and on the other hand the organisation of the political party both for the defence of the immediate general interests of the working class through parliamentary political action (struggles to impose a legal limit on the work of children and women, or on the working day, for example), and for the preparation and propaganda for the "maximum programme", in other words for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

Because capitalism as a whole was still in its period of ascendancy, as demonstrated notably by an unprecedented expansion of the productive forces (the last 30 years of the 19th century witnessed both the expansion and the extension of capitalist production relations world wide), it was still possible for the working class to win lasting reforms from the bourgeoisie.[6] Pressure on the bourgeois parties within the parliamentary framework made possible the adoption of laws favourable to the working-class, as well as the repeal of the anti-socialist laws banning the organisation of workers in trade unions and political parties.

Nonetheless, the very success of the workers' parties within capitalism also proved extremely dangerous. The reformist current considered that this situation, which had seen the influence of workers' organisation develop on the basis of real reforms won in favour of the working class, was definitive, when in fact it was merely temporary. The reformists, for whom "the movement is everything, the goal is nothing", found their main expression at the end of the 19th century, either in the political parties or in the trade unions, depending on the country. Thus in Germany, the attempt by the current around Bernstein to have an opportunist policy abandoning the revolutionary goal officially adopted as party policy, was vigorously fought within the Social Democratic party by the left wing around Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek. By contrast, the revisionist current more readily gained a strong influence in the great German trade union organisations. In France, the situation was reversed, the socialist party being much more profoundly marked than in Germany by reformist and opportunist ideology. This was demonstrated by the inclusion in the Waldeck-Rousseau government of 1899-1901, of the socialist minister, Alexandre Millerand.[7] This participation in government was rejected by the whole Social Democracy in the congresses of the Second International, but was only abandoned with difficulty (and for some with many regrets) by the French Socialists themselves. It is therefore no accident that in 1914, in the break with the workers' organisations that had gone over to the enemy (the socialist parties and trade unions), the internationalist left emerged from the German party (the Spartacus group around Luxemburg and Liebknecht), and from the French unions (the internationalist tendency represented by Rosmer, Monatte, and Merrheim, amongst others).

Generally speaking, opportunism was most present in the parliamentary fractions of the socialist parties, and in a whole apparatus involved in parliamentary work. This apparatus also exercised the greatest attraction on all those careerist elements who joined the party in the hope of profiting from the growing influence of the workers' movement, but who of course had no interest in the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order. As a result, there was a tendency within the working-class to identify political work with parliamentary activity, parliamentary activity with opportunism and careerism, careerism with the petty bourgeois intelligentsia of lawyers and journalists, and finally opportunism with the very notion of the political party.

Faced with the development of opportunism, the response of many revolutionary workers was to reject political activity as a whole, and, so to speak, to withdraw into the trade unions. And so, inasmuch as the revolutionary syndicalist movement was a truly working-class current, its aim, as we shall see, was to build trade unions which would be the unitary organs of the working-class capable of regrouping it for the defence of its economic interests, of preparing it for the day when it was to take power through the general strike, and of serving as the organisational structure of the future communist society. These unions were to be class unions, free of the careerism of an intelligentsia which wanted to use the workers' movement in order to make room for itself on the parliamentary benches, and independent – as the French CGT's 1906 Congress at Amiens emphasised – of all political parties.

In short, as Lenin said: "In Western Europe revolutionary syndicalism in many countries was a direct and inevitable result of opportunism, reformism, and parliamentary cretinism. In our country, too, the first steps of “Duma activity” increased opportunism to a tremendous extent and reduced the Mensheviks to servility before the Cadets (…) Syndicalism cannot help developing on Russian soil as a reaction against this shameful conduct of 'distinguished' Social-Democrats".[8]

The main characteristics of the syndicalist currents

What then was this revolutionary syndicalism whose development Lenin foresaw? First of all, its different components shared a common vision of what a trade union should be. To summarise this conception, we cannot do better than to quote the preamble to the second constitution of the International Workers of the World (IWW), adopted in Chicago in 1908: "It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.[9] The army of production must be organized, not only for the every-day struggle with the capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old".[10]

The union is therefore to be the unitary organisation of the class for the defence of its immediate interests, for the revolutionary seizure of power, and for the organisation of the future communist society. According to this vision, the political party is at best irrelevant (Bill Haywood considered that the IWW was "socialism in overalls"), and at worst a breeding ground for bureaucrats.

There are two major criticisms to be made of this syndicalist vision, to which we will return in greater detail later.

The first concerns the idea that it is possible "[to form] the structure of the new society within the shell of the old". This idea that it is possible to begin to build the new society within the old springs from a profound incomprehension of the degree of antagonism between capitalism, the last exploiting society, and the classless society which must replace it. This serious error leads to underestimating the depth of social transformation necessary to carry out the transition between these two social forms, and it also underestimates the resistance of the ruling class to the seizure of power by the working-class.

Any idea that it is possible to find an artificial shortcut, and so to avoid the inevitable constraints imposed by the transition from capitalism to classless society, in fact plays into the hands of such reactionary conceptions as self-management (in reality self-exploitation), or the construction of socialism in one country so dear to Stalin. When today's anarcho-syndicalists criticise the Bolsheviks for not having adopted radical measures of social transformation in October 1917, when capitalism's economic domination still covered the entire planet, including Russia, they merely reveal their reformist vision both of the revolution and of the new society which the revolution is to establish. This is hardly surprising since the syndicalist vision is in fact limited to changing the ownership of private property: the private property of the capitalists becomes the private property of a group of workers, since each factory, each enterprise, is to remain autonomous in relation to the others. This vision of the future social transformation is so limited that it foresees the same workers continuing to work in the same industries, and so necessarily in the same conditions.

Our second criticism of revolutionary syndicalism is that it completely ignored the real revolutionary experience of the working class. For the Marxists, the Russian Revolution of 1905 was a crucial moment, particularly in its spontaneous creation of the workers councils. For Lenin, the Soviets were "the finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat". Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Pannekoek, in fact the whole left wing of the Social-Democracy which was later to form the Communist International, paid great attention to the analysis of these events, and of others such as the great strikes in Holland in 1903. Through the propaganda of the Second International's left currents, the political experience of 1905 thus became a vital element of working-class consciousness, which was to bear fruit in October 1917 in Russia (where the anarchists moreover played a minimal role) and throughout the revolutionary wave which saw the emergence of Soviets in Finland, Germany, and Hungary. The "revolutionary" syndicalists, on the contrary, remained stuck in abstract schemas which were based on the experience of reformist trade union struggle during capitalism's ascendant period, and which thus proved completely inadequate for the revolutionary struggle in decadent capitalism. It is true that the anarchists like to claim that the Spanish "revolution" was much deeper than the Russian Revolution in terms of social change. As we will see, nothing could be further from the truth.

Today's revolutionary syndicalists continue in the same tradition, completely ignoring the real experience of workers' struggles since 1968. In particular they take no account of the fact that, on the one hand, the organisational form adopted by the struggle is not the trade union but the sovereign general assembly with its elected and revocable delegates,[11] while, on the other hand, the bourgeois state itself has directly incorporated the trade unions within it.[12]

We have seen that the revolutionary syndicalists and anarcho-syndicalists share a common vision of the union as the place where the working-class organises. Let us now look at three key elements which turn up regularly in syndicalist organisations, and which we will examine in greater detail in the next articles.

Direct action

One might think that today, the question of direct action had been resolved by history. When revolutionary syndicalism first made its appearance, direct action was put forward in opposition to the action of "the leaders", in other words of the parliamentary leaders of the socialist parties or the trade union bureaucrats. However, since capitalism entered its decadent period not only have the "socialist" and "communist" parties definitively betrayed the proletariat, but also the very conditions of the class struggle mean that any action on the terrain of parliament or the conquest of political "rights" has become impossible. In this sense, the debate between "direct action" and "political action" is completely irrelevant. Some might conclude that history had settled the question, and that Marxists and anarchists could therefore agree to defend the direct action of the working-class in the struggle.

This is not in fact the case. The question of "direct action" goes to the heart of the divergence between the Marxist and anarchist conceptions of the role of the revolutionary minority. For the Marxists, the action of the revolutionary minority is that of the political vanguard of the working class and has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of minority action inherited from the "exemplary act" of the anarchists, which substitutes itself for the action of the class as a whole. The political orientations that the Marxist organisation puts forward to its class always depend on the level of the class struggle as a whole, on the greater or lesser capacity at any given moment of the whole proletariat to act as a class against the bourgeoisie, and to adopt the principles and the analyses of the communists in the struggle (to “seize the weapon of theory" as Marx put it). Anarcho-syndicalism, by contrast, remains infected by the essentially moral and minority vision of the anarchists. For this current there is no distinction between the "direct action" of the mass of workers, and that of a minority, however small.

The general strike

The idea of the general strike is not specific to anarcho- syndicalism, since its first expression is to be found in the writings of the Utopian socialist Robert Owen at the beginning of the 19th century. This being said, it has become one of the major characteristics of syndicalist theory, and can be presented in three main aspects:[13]

- the working-class' ability to carry out the general strike with success depends on the growth in number and in power of the union organisations (revolutionary ones, of course);

- the revolution is not a question of politics: in the anarcho- syndicalist vision, the general strike will simply paralyse the bourgeois state, which will then leave the workers undisturbed to carry out the transformation of society;

- the theory of the general strike is closely linked to that of self-management, which is put forward above all at the level of the factory or the workplace.

In reality, none of these ideas has survived the test of the concrete experience of the working-class itself.

First of all, the theory according to which the revolutionary period would be preceded by the continuous development in trade unions' strength has proven completely false. In neither the Russian nor the German revolutions were the trade unions organs of struggle or of the exercise of proletarian power. On the contrary, they turned out at best to be a conservative brake on the revolution (for example the railway workers' union in Russia, which opposed the revolution in 1917). In all the countries involved in World War I, the unions controlled the working class on behalf of the bourgeois state, in order to guarantee war production and to prevent any development of resistance to the slaughter. This role was adopted without hesitation by the leadership of the anarcho-syndicalist CGT as soon as France entered the war.

The result of revolutionary syndicalism's refusal of "politics" was to disarm the workers completely in confronting those questions, which are really posed in the critical moments of war and revolution. All those questions posed between 1914 and 1936 were political questions: what was the nature of the war that broke out in 1914, an imperialist war or a war for the defence of democratic rights against German militarism? What attitude should be adopted towards the "democratisation" of absolutist states in February 1917 (Russia) and in 1918 (Germany)? What attitude should be adopted towards the democratic state in Spain in 1936 – was it a bourgeois enemy or an antifascist ally? In every case, revolutionary syndicalism proved incapable of giving an answer, and ended up in a de facto alliance with the bourgeoisie.

Experience of the strike in Russia in 1905 called into question the theories that had been put forward up to then by both the anarchists and the Social-Democrats (the Marxists of their day). But only the left wing of Marxism proved capable of drawing the lessons from this crucial experience. "The Russian Revolution, which is the first historical experiment on the model of the class strike, not merely does not afford a vindication of anarchism, but actually means the historical liquidation of anarchism (...) Thus has historical dialectics, the rock on which the whole teaching of Marxian socialism rests, brought it about that today anarchism, with which the idea of the mass strike is indissolubly associated, has itself come to be opposed to the mass strike which was combated as the opposite of the political activity of the proletariat, appears today as the most powerful weapon of the struggle for political rights. If, therefore, the Russian Revolution makes imperative a fundamental revision of the old standpoint of Marxism on the question of the mass strike, it is once again Marxism whose general method and points of view have thereby, in new form, carried off the prize. 'The Moor’s beloved can die only by the hand of the Moor'" (Rosa Luxemburg, The mass strike, on www.marxists.org; the quotation is a reference to Shakespeare's play Othello).

Internationalism or anti-militarism?

At first sight, it might seem purely academic to distinguish between internationalism and anti-militarism. After all, anyone who is against the army must surely be for brotherhood among the peoples? Are these not, when it comes down to it, the same struggle? In reality, these two principles spring from two profoundly different approaches. Internationalism is based on the understanding that, although capitalism is a world system, it remains nonetheless incapable of going beyond the national framework and an increasingly frenzied competition between nations. As such, it engenders a movement that aims at the international overthrow of capitalist society, by a working-class that is also united internationally. Ever since 1848, the principal slogan of the workers' movement has not been anti-militarist, but internationalist: "Workers of all countries, unite!".[14] But for the revolutionary Marxist left the social democracy before 1914, it was impossible to conceive the struggle against militarism as anything other than an aspect of a much wider struggle. "Social-democracy, in accordance with its conception of the essence of militarism, regards the complete abolition of militarism alone as impossible: militarism can only fall together with capitalism, the last class system of society (…) the goal of Social-Democracy's anti-militarist propaganda is not to fight the system as an isolated phenomenon, nor is its final aim the abolition of militarism alone" (Karl Liebknecht, Militarismus und anti-militarismus).

Anti-militarism, by contrast, is not necessarily internationalist, since it tends to take as its main enemy not capitalism as such, but only an aspect of capitalism. For the anarcho-syndicalists in the French CGT prior to 1914, anti-militarist propaganda was motivated above all by the immediate experience of the army being used against strikers. They considered it necessary both to give moral support to young proletarians during their military service, and to convince the troops to refuse to use their weapons against strikers. In itself, there is nothing to criticise in such an aim. But anarcho-syndicalists remained incapable of understanding militarism as a phenomenon integral to capitalism, a phenomenon which was to get worse in the period before 1914 as the great imperialist powers prepared for World War I. Typical of this incomprehension is the idea that militarism is in fact nothing but an excuse to justify the maintenance of an anti-working class repressive force, an idea expressed by the anarcho-syndicalist leaders Pouget and Pataud: "the government wanted to preserve warfare – for the fear of war was, for them, the best of devices for domination. Thanks to the fear of war, skilfully maintained, they could maintain standing armies throughout the country which, under the pretext of protecting the frontier, in reality only threatened the people and only protected the ruling class" (Comment nous ferons la révolution, Pouget and Pataud).

In fact the anti-militarism of the CGT was very like pacifism, in its ability to execute a 180° turn as soon as "the fatherland is in danger". In August 1914, the anti-militarists discovered overnight that the French bourgeoisie was "less militarist" than the German bourgeoisie, and that it was therefore necessary to defend the French "revolutionary tradition" of 1789 against the barbarous jackboot of the Prussian militarist, rather than "transforming the imperialist war into a civil war" to use Lenin's words.

Obviously, the question of militarism could no longer be posed in the same way after the awful slaughter of 1914-18, which far surpassed in horror anything that the anti-militarists of 1914 could have imagined. Anti-militarist ideology was thus superseded, as we might say, by the ideology of anti-fascism, as we will see when we come to consider the role of the CNT during the war in Spain in the 1930s. In both cases, syndicalists chose one camp – the more democratic bourgeoisie – against another, that of the more authoritarian, dictatorial bourgeoisie.

The distinction between anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism

It was not necessarily obvious to their contemporaries that any differentiation existed between these two currents, which moreover were linked in many ways. Indeed, before 1914 one could say that the French CGT served as a beacon for the other syndicalist currents, in much the same way as the German SPD did for the other parties of the Second International. It nonetheless seems necessary, with historical hindsight, to distinguish between the positions of the anarcho-syndicalists and the revolutionary syndicalists. This distinction largely coincides with the difference between the industrially less developed countries (France and Spain), and two most important and most developed capitalist countries respectively of the 19th century (Britain) and of the 20th century (United States). Whereas anarcho-syndicalism is closely linked to the greater influence, within the workers' movement of the less developed countries, of the anarchism characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie and small artisan strata in the process of proletarianisation, revolutionary syndicalism was more a response to the problems of the proletariat highly concentrated in large-scale industry.

We will examine briefly three important elements which allow us to distinguish between these two currents.

For or against centralisation. Anarcho-syndicalism has always had a federalist vision whereby the federation is no more than the grouping of independent unions: the confederation has no authority at the level of each union. In the CGT in particular, this situation suited the anarcho-syndicalists perfectly since they dominated above all in the small trade unions and the system whereby each union had one vote at the level of the confederation gave them a weight in the CGT far greater than their real numerical importance.

The revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW was founded, by contrast, both implicitly and explicitly on the international centralisation of the working-class. It is no accident if one of the IWW's slogans is: "one big union". Even the union's name ("Industrial Workers of the World") declares clearly – even if the reality did not always live up to the ambition – its intention to regroup the workers of the whole world in one single organisation. The IWW statutes adopted in Chicago in 1905 established the authority of the central organ: "The subdivision International and National Industrial Unions shall have complete industrial autonomy in their respective internal affairs, provided the General Executive Board shall have power to control these Industrial Unions in matters concerning the interest of the general welfare" (see “Jim Crutchfield's IWW Page” cited above for the full text).

There was a considerable difference between anarcho-syndicalists and revolutionary syndicalists in their attitude towards political action. Although there were members of socialist parties in some of the CGT unions, the anarcho-syndicalists themselves were "anti-political" seeing nothing in these parties but parliamentary manoeuvring or the manipulation of "leaders". The famous charter adopted by the Amiens Congress in 1906 declared the CGT's total independence from any parties or "sects" (a reference to anarchist groups). This refusal of any political vision (understood explicitly in terms of the parliamentary activity of the day) is one of the reasons why the CGT found itself completely unprepared politically for the war of 1914, which failed to follow the schema of the general strike on a purely "economic" terrain. The anarchist rejection of "politics" had no real equivalent during the foundation of the IWW, even if the founders considered themselves to be building a unitary organisation of the working-class and intended to maintain their entire freedom of action in relation to political parties. On the contrary, the best-known founders and leaders of the IWW were often also members of a political party: Big Bill Haywood was not only secretary of the Western Federation of Miners but also a member of the Socialist Party of America, as was A. Simons. Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party also played a leading role in the formation of the IWW. In the somewhat specific context of the United States, the IWW were often considered by the bourgeoisie and by the reformist AFL union (American Federation of Labour) as a trade union expression of political socialism. Even after the split of 1908, at the congress where the IWW modified their constitution to ban any acknowledgement of political (that is to say essentially electoral) action, members of the SPA continued to play a fundamental role within the IWW. Haywood in particular was elected to the executive committee of the SPA in 1911: his election represented moreover a victory for the revolutionaries against the reformists within the socialist party itself.

Similarly it would be impossible to explain the influence of revolutionary syndicalism among the shop stewards in Britain without mentioning the role played by John MacLean and the Scottish SLP. Nor is it any accident that the bastions of the shop stewards' movement (the coal and steel industry of South Wales, the industry along the Clyde River in Scotland, the region around Sheffield in England) were also to become bastions of the Communist Party in the years that followed the Russian Revolution.

Finally, the position that each of these two currents took towards the war is not the least of the differences between them. If we situate the period of syndicalism's greatest influence between 1900 and 1940, we can see a major difference between anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism in their attitudes towards imperialist war:

- Anarcho-syndicalism foundered body and soul in its support for imperialist war: in 1914 the CGT enrolled the French working-class for war, while in 1936-37 Spanish CNT, through its antifascist ideology and its participation in government, became one of the main pillars of the bourgeois republic.

- Revolutionary syndicalism, on the other hand, remained true to its internationalist positions: the IWW in the United States, and the shop stewards in Britain, were at the heart of the workers resistance to the war.

Obviously, this distinction should be nuanced: revolutionary syndicalism had its weaknesses (notably a strong tendency to see the question of war solely through the narrow prism of the economic struggle against its effects). Nonetheless at the level of the organisations the distinction remains valid.

In short, while revolutionary syndicalism, despite its weaknesses, provided some of the working-class' most determined militants in the struggle against the war, anarcho- syndicalism provided ministers for the governments of Sacred Union in the bourgeois republics of France and Spain.


"Comrade Voinov is quite correct in taking the line of calling upon the Russian Social-Democrats to learn from the example of opportunism and from the example of syndicalism. Revolutionary work in the trade unions, shifting the emphasis from parliamentary trickery to the education of the proletariat, to rallying the purely class organisations, to the struggle outside parliament, to ability to use (and to prepare the masses for the possibility of successfully using) the general strike, as well as the 'December forms of struggle',[15] in the Russian revolution – all this comes very strongly into prominence as the task of the Bolshevik trend. And the experience of the Russian revolution immensely facilitates this task for us, provides a wealth of practical guidance and historical data making it possible to appraise in the most concrete way the new methods of struggle, the mass strike, and the use of direct force. These methods of struggle are least of all ‘new’ to the Russian Bolsheviks, the Russian proletariat. They are ’new’ to the opportunists, who are doing their utmost to erase from the minds of the workers in the West the memory of the Commune, and from the minds of the workers in Russia the memory of December 1905. To strengthen these memories, to make a scientific study of that great experience, to spread its lessons among the masses and the realisation of its inevitable repetition on a new scale - this task of the revolutionary Social-Democrats in Russia opens up before us prospects infinitely richer than the one-sided "anti-opportunism" and "anti-parliamentarism" of the syndicalists" (Lenin, op. cit.). For Lenin, revolutionary syndicalism was a proletarian response to the opportunism and parliamentary cretinism of Social-Democracy, but it was a partial and schematic response, unable to grasp the watershed period of the early 20th century in all its complexity. Despite the historic differences which produced the different syndicalist currents, all had this defect in common. As we will see in the articles to come, this weakness proved fatal: at best the syndicalist current was unable to contribute fully to the development of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23; at worst, it foundered in open support for the imperialist capitalism which it had once thought to combat.

Jens, 4th July 2004

[1] We will return later to the distinction between revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism. To put it briefly, we can say that anarcho-syndicalism is a branch of revolutionary syndicalism. All the anarcho-syndicalists consider themselves to be revolutionary syndicalists, whereas the reverse is not the case. Where we use the term “syndicalism”, we refer to both currents indifferently.

[2] The socialist parties' betrayal in 1914 was already being fought by the left wing in the socialist parties (Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Gorter, Lenin, Trotsky) from the beginning of the 20th century; the betrayal by the communist parties (who were to lead the counter-revolution in the 1920s-30s) was fought by the left communists (the KAPD in Germany, the GIK in Holland, the left of the Italian CP around Bordiga, then the fractions of the international Left in Bilan and Internationalisme).

[3] The Grand National Consolidated Union was created in 1833, with the active participation of Robert Owen; according to the press of the day, it organised 800,000 British workers (see JT Murphy, Preparing for power).

[4] The anarchists like to oppose the “libertarian” and “democratic” Bakunin to the “authoritarian” Marx. In reality, the aristocrat Bakunin had a profound contempt for the “people” who were to be led by the invisible hand of a secret conspiracy: “for the real revolution, we need not individuals placed at the head of the crowd commanding it, but men hidden invisibly within it, linking invisibly one crowd with the next, thus giving invisibly one and the same leadership, one and the same spirit and character to the movement. The secret preparatory organisation has no other meaning than that, and that is the only reason it is necessary” (Bakunin, The principles of revolution). See International Review n°88, “Questions of organisation”. For more details on Bakunin's organisational ideas, see the excellent biography by EH Carr.

[5] In this period, the unions were organised by trade; moreover, union membership was generally limited to skilled workers.

[6] As an example of the difference between capitalism's ascendant and decadent periods, we can cite the evolution of the working day. From 16-17 hours a day at the beginning of the 19th century, it had fallen towards ten hours or even eight hours in certain industries by the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, the working day (apart from swindles like the 35-hour week in France, which today is being called into question) has remained obstinately stuck around eight hours, and that despite a fantastic increase in productivity. In countries like Britain, the working day is now on the rise, the typical “9-5” job of the 1960s being replaced by a working day that ends at 6 o'clock or later.

[7] Millerand was a lawyer much valued in the French workers' movement for his qualities in defending trade unionists in the courts. A protégé of Jaurès, he entered parliament in 1889 as an independent socialist. But his participation in the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet alienated him from the socialists, from whom he increasingly separated from 1905 onwards. He became Minister of Public Works in 1909, then served as Minister for War between 1912 and 1915.

[8] Lenin's preface to a pamphlet by Voinov (Lunacharsky) on the party's attitude towards the unions (1907). In reality, syndicalism developed very little in Russia, and for one reason: the Russian workers turned towards a truly revolutionary marxist political party, the Bolsheviks. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1907/nov/00.htm

[9] It should be noted that this vision of a historic mission of the working class is much more closely related to marxism than to anarchism.

[10] “Jim Crutchfield's IWW Page” contains useful material for the history of the IWW. See here for the IWW's 1908 Constitution.

[11] See our articles on the class struggles in Poland in 1980-81, in International Review n°24-29.

[12] For those who doubt the reality of this incorporation, we need only look at the extent to which the unions in “democratic” countries are financed by the state. For example, according to the French paper La Tribune of 23/02/2004, there are 2,500 civil servants paid by the Ministry of Education alone to take part in full-time union work. The same article gives details of the various subsidies paid to the unions, including some €35 million per year paid in the name of “union-management cooperation”.

[13] The anarcho-syndicalist vision of the general strike is described in novel form, in the book Comment nous ferons la révolution written by two CGT leaders, Pouget and Pataud, in 1909 (Editions Syllepse).

[14] The Communist Manifesto.

[15] In other words, the Soviets.