from the collection, What do we mean by ...?, Education for Socialists No.6, March 1987.
Published by the Socialist Workers Party (Britain).
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
Though the term “syndicalism” is widely used on the left today, often as a term of abuse, syndicalist organisations are extremely rare. This was not always the case. In the first two decades of this century syndicalism was a powerful current in the international workers movement. In those years the ideas of syndicalists, originally gathered in small propaganda groups, connected with and helped to produce serious workers’ movements in France, the United States, Italy, Australia, Latin America, Spain and Britain.
Defining syndicalism briefly is difficult, as it flourished in a variety of forms. Lack of space makes It impossible to go into all the differences between “anarcho-syndicalism”, “revolutionary syndicalism” and “industrial unionism” (to name only three). But there is a central core, both theoretically and practically, which all varieties of syndicalism have in common.
Syndicalism was a movement committed to destroying capitalism through revolutionary industrial struggle. Parliamentary democracy and working for reforms through the state were rejected as dead ends. Syndicalists instead looked to the power of the working class as exercised through its economic organisations, the trade unions.
Important differences existed on this question. Most European syndicalists saw their task as the conversion of existing unions to a revolutionary position, while Americans. particularly those influenced by the ideas of Daniel de Leon, believed It was necessary to create new unions. But all saw the main task as uniting the working class as a whole across racial, craft and sectional divisions. The road to the emancipation of the working class, they said, lay through direct action, solidarity, and finally the general strike which would lead to the working class seizing the means of production.
In its heyday syndicalism was a mass movement, the American Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) organised tens of thousands of workers into the “One Big Union” whose banner was “No race, no creed, no colour”. Organisers such as Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones laid special emphasis on recruiting those sections of workers ignored by the craftist and conservative American Federation of Labor – immigrant workers, migratory labourers, women and blacks.
In France, where industry was relatively underdeveloped, syndicalists were involved in much of the pioneering organisation of workers that led to the formation of the CGT union confederation. In Spain, union organisations were solidly syndicalist until after the First World War. And in Ireland, the modern trade union movement was built mainly by syndicalists such as Jim Larkin and James Connolly.
In Britain the activities of Tom Mann and other syndicalists were important in fuelling the highly militant wave of mass strikes that ran from 1910 to 1914, known as the “Great Unrest”. The Socialist Labour Party, although numerically small, had a widespread influence because of the activities of its leading members. That influence remained powerful even after the outbreak of the First World War, into the great engineering strikes of 1916-17, the birth of the first shop stewards’ movement and later the founding of the British Communist Party.
Why did this particular form of anti-capitalist revolt become so influential? The early years of this century were a period of dynamic change within capitalism. The rise of imperialism had spread the capitalist system across the whole world, greatly increasing the pace of competition between different capitalists. More and more industry was concentrated in the hands of fewer capitalists whose fortunes were increasingly tied to the power of the nation state.
The strength and potential power of the working class grew correspondingly. Yet at the same time, the existing trade unions and socialist parties were becoming increasingly reformist, as the ruling classes sought to co-opt their leaders as men who could police the working class. The influence of syndicalism grew as a reaction to the class collaboration of these leaders. The mood of many workers was expressed by one leading British syndicalist, Fred Bower, when assessing the 1908 TUC conference: “There I met most of the heads of the labour movement. Earnest and impatient, I sensed a laziness in many of my confreres who had arrived. The ease of Parliament seemed to have emasculated many of them ... Action, action and action again was what we younger men wanted.”
Syndicalism was also an expression of workers’ hatred of the realities of working life under capitalism. For it was in the immediate struggles of workers against the bosses that syndicalist ideas found their deepest roots. Marxist ideas were important to many syndicalists, but in a way that was divorced from their practice. Theory existed simply to explain the workings or the system, not as a guide to action.
Speaking at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Trotsky described the syndicalists as people “who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie, but who, unlike ... [the reformists] ... really want to tear its head off”. He characterised syndicalism as a revolutionary tendency within the working class, but went on to point out a number of serious flaws in syndicalist theory. Those flaws have subsequently been confirmed time and again in practice.
Firstly, the syndicalists failed to grasp the dual nature of trade unions. While trade unions are an essential weapon in workers’ struggles against the bosses, they also act as a means of social control, of incorporating workers into capitalism.
The dilemma of revolutionary unionism can be summed up by the question: “What happens in a strike when agreements have to be signed between the union and the bosses?” Even after disputes of great militancy, the pressures to bargain and negotiate necessarily push revolutionary trade unionism in the direction of reformism. Correspondingly. the existence of union bureaucracies, as agents of class collaboration, is a far more fundamental problem than sectionalism or the problems of union structure, which syndicalists tended to see as the main problems.
Secondly, while syndicalism represented a step forward from reformism-since it stressed workers’ power at the point of production, it failed in practice to provide a consistent political alternative to reformism. The outbreak of the First World War brought this out clearly. Many syndicalists were among the most principled opponents of the imperialist slaughter. Yet there were others who supported the war, or took an equivocal position. The Clyde Workers Committee, for instance, was led by revolutionaries such as Willie Gallagher, who themselves opposed the war. But unlike the Russian Bolsheviks they refused to agitate against the war from a minority position. Instead Gallagher and his comrades argued that the issue went beyond the committee’s bounds, and that they should limit themselves to issues of wages and conditions which would unite all workers.
Such a division between economics and politics mirrors reformism. To deny politics, as the syndicalists often did, was simply to hand the political initiative over to the reformists.
Thirdly, it was a mistake to believe that simply taking control of the factories would topple the existing order. As Marx and Engels had argued. workers’ control of production is possible only after they have achieved political power and smashed the capitalist state. The Russian Revolution was to prove this argument in practice.
This raises the question of the revolutionary instrument of workers’ power. Within the syndicalist movement there was no recognition of the political role of the minority of revolutionary workers organised in a revolutionary party. In non-revolutionary times trade union consciousness inevitably lags behind socialist consciousness because unions must by their nature accept all workers, whether they be Tories, reformists or revolutionaries. They necessarily reflect the unevenness of the working class.
The revolutionary party starts from the position of recognising these different levels of consciousness within the class and fights to overcome them. It is the party that strives to lead and unite the economic and political struggles and ultimately makes possible the conquest of power.
The high tide of syndicalism came before the Russian Revolution. Under the impact of the lessons of October 1917 and the success of the Bolsheviks many syndicalist militants joined the new communist parties.
Yet our differences with syndicalism in its various forms remain relevant to revolutionaries today. In Poland in 1980-1 the free trade union Solidarity organised millions of workers in the biggest revolt ever in Eastern Europe. But it avoided central political questions, in particular the need to destroy the state. In the end that state engineered the coup which destroyed Solidarity. Political questions simply could not be avoided. In South Africa today the creation of the new union federation COSATU has seen the emergence of a “workerist” tendency among some of the best militants who see the union as the sole instrument for change. Their lack of an independent political perspective means that they are finding it increasingly difficult to challenge the ANC’s policies of class alliances.
Finally, in a country like Britain with a developed trade union movement, under certain conditions syndicalist tendencies can develop among groups of workers who emphasise Industrial struggle to the detriment of political organisation, frustrated perhaps by the sell-outs of the Labour Party.
As the crisis in the system gets progressively worse, workers’ struggles increasingly carry an unavoidable political dimension. Short of any major upturn in struggle revolutionaries must avoid the rightward pull that comes from burying too deep in the unions. We have to combine our attempts to lead struggles wherever possible with an ability to provide answers to the big political questions constantly raised by the system in crisis.
Last updated on 31.3.2002