Syndicalism was a radical current in the labor movement, mainly in the early 20th century. According to the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, it predominated the revolutionary left in the decade preceding World War I, as Marxism was mostly reformist at that time.
Major syndicalist organizations included the General Confederation of Labor in France, the National Confederation of Labor in Spain, the Italian Syndicalist Union, the Free Workers' Union of Germany, and the Argentine Regional Workers' Federation. The Industrial Workers of the World, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, and the Canadian One Big Union, though they did not regard themselves as syndicalists, are considered by most historians to belong to the current. A number of syndicalist organizations were, and still are to this day, linked in the International Workers' Association.
The term syndicalism has French origins. In French, a syndicat is a trade union, usually a local union. The corresponding words in Spanish and Portuguese, sindicato, and Italian, sindacato, are similar. By extension, the French syndicalisme refers to trade unionism in general. The concept syndicalisme révolutionnaire or revolutionary syndicalism emerged in French socialist journals in 1903 and the French General Confederation of Labor (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) came to use the term to describe its brand of unionism. Revolutionary syndicalism, or more commonly syndicalism with the revolutionary implied, was then adapted to a number of languages by unionists following the French model.
Many scholars, including Darlington, Marcel van der Linden, and Wayne Thorpe, apply the term syndicalism to a number of organizations or currents within the labor movement that did not identify as syndicalist. They apply the label to one big unionists or industrial unionists in North America and Australia, Larkinists in Ireland, and groups that identify as revolutionary industrialists, revolutionary unionists, anarcho-syndicalists, or councilists. This includes the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States, for example, which claimed its industrial unionism was "a higher type of revolutionary labor organization than that proposed by the syndicalists". Van der Linden and Thorpe use syndicalism to refer to "all revolutionary, direct-actionist organizatons". Darlington proposes that syndicalism be defined as "revolutionary trade unionism". He and van der Linden argue that it is justified to group together such a wide range of organizations because their similar modes of action or practice outweigh their ideological differences.
Others, like Larry Peterson and Erik Olssen, disagree with this broad definition. According to Olssen, this understanding has a "tendency to blur the distinctions between industrial unionism, syndicalism, and revolutionary socialism". Peterson gives a more restrictive definition of syndicalism based on five criteria:
- a preference for federalism over centralism,
- opposition to political parties,
- seeing the general strike as the supreme revolutionary weapon,
- favoring the replacement of the state by "a federal, economic organization of society",
- and seeing unions as the basic building blocks of a post-capitalist society.
This definition excludes the IWW and the Canadian One Big Union (OBU). Peterson proposes the broader category revolutionary industrial unionism to encompass syndicalism, groups like the IWW and the OBU, and others. The defining commonality between these groups is that they sought to unite all workers in a general organization.
Syndicalism originated in France and spread from there. The French CGT was the model and inspiration for syndicalist groups throughout Europe and the world. Revolutionary industrial unionism, part of syndicalism in the broader sense, originated with the IWW in the United States and then caught on in other countries. In a number of countries, however, certain syndicalist practices and ideas predate the coining of the term in France or the founding of the IWW. In Bert Altena's view, a number of movements in Europe can be called syndicalist, even before 1900. According to the English social historian E.P. Thompson and the anarcho-syndicalist theorist Rudolf Rocker, there were syndicalist tendencies in Britain's labor movement as early as the 1830s. Syndicalists saw themselves as the heirs of the First International, the international socialist organization formed in 1864, particularly its anti-authoritarian wing led by Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin and his followers advocated the general strike, rejected electoral politics, and anticipated workers' organizations replacing rule by the state. According to Lucien van der Walt, the Spanish section of the First International, formed in 1870, was in fact syndicalist. Kenyon Zimmer sees a "proto-syndicalism" in the influence the anarchist-led International Working People's Association (IWPA) and Central Labor Union, which originated in the American section of the First International, had in the Chicago labor movement of the 1880s. They were involved in the nationwide struggle for an eight-hour day. On May 3, 1886, the police killed three striking workers at a demonstration in Chicago. Seven policemen and four workers were killed the following day when someone, possibly an IWPA member, threw a bomb at the police. Four anarchists were eventually executed for allegedly conspiring with the man who threw the bomb. The Haymarket Affair, as these events become known, led anarchists and labor organizers, including syndicalists, in both the United States and Europe to re-evaluate the revolutionary meaning of the general strike.
According to Émile Pouget, a French anarchist and CGT leader, from "the United States, the idea of the general strike – fertilized by the blood of anarchists hanged in Chicago [...] – was imported to France". In the 1890s, French anarchists, conceding that individual action such as assassinations had failed, turned their focus to the labor movement. They were able to gain influence, particularly in the bourses du travail, which served as labor exchanges, meeting places for unions, and trades councils and organized in a national federation in 1893. In 1895, the CGT was formed as a rival to the bourses, but was at first much weaker. From the start, it advocated the general strike and aimed to unite all workers. Pouget, who was active in the CGT, supported the use of sabotage and direct action. In 1902, the bourses merged into the CGT. In 1906, the federation adopted the Charter of Amiens, which reaffirmed the CGT's independence from party politics and fixed the goal of uniting all French workers.
In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World were formed in the United States by the Western Federation of Miners, the American Labor Union, and a broad coalition of socialists, anarchists, and labor unionists. Its base was mostly in the Western US where labor conflicts were most violent and workers therefore radicalized. Although Wobblies insisted their union was a distinctly American form of labor organization and not an import of European syndicalism, the IWW was syndicalist in the broader sense of the word. According to Melvyn Dubofsky and most other IWW historians, the IWW's industrial unionism was the specifically American form of syndicalism. Nevertheless, the IWW also had a presence in Canada and Mexico nearly from its inception, as the US economy and labor force was intertwined with those countries'.
French syndicalism and American industrial unionism influenced the rise of syndicalism elsewhere. Syndicalist movements and organizations in a number of countries were established by activists who had spent time in France. Ervin Szabó visited Paris in 1904 and then established a Syndicalist Propaganda Group in his native Hungary in 1910. Several of the founders of the Spanish CNT had visited France. Alceste de Ambris and Armando Borghi, both leaders in Italy's USI, were in Paris for a few months from 1910 to 1911. French influence also spread through publications. Emile Pouget's pamphlets could be read in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, German, and Swedish translations. Journals and newspapers in a number of countries advocated syndicalism. For example, L'Action directe, a journal mainly for miners in Charleroi, Belgium, urged its readers to follow "the example of our confederated friends of France". The IWW's newspapers published articles on French syndicalism, particularly the tactic of sabotage and the CGT's La Vie Ouvrière carried articles about Britain's labor movement by the British syndicalist Tom Mann. Migration played a key role in spreading syndicalist ideas. The Argentine Regional Workers' Federation (Federación Obrera Regional Argentina, FORA), openly anarchist by 1905, was formed by Italian and Spanish immigrants in 1901. Many IWW leaders were European immigrants, including Edmondo Rossoni who moved between the United States and Italy and was active in both the IWW and USI. International work processes also contributed to the diffusion of syndicalism. For example, sailors helped establish IWW presences in port cities around the world.
Syndicalists formed different kinds of organizations. Some, like the French radicals, worked within existing unions to infuse them with their revolutionary spirit. Some found existing unions entirely unsuitable and built federations of their own, a strategy known as dual unionism. American syndicalists formed the IWW, though William Z. Foster later abandoned the IWW after a trip to France and set up the Syndicalist League of North America (SLNA), which sought to radicalize the established American Federation of Labor (AFL). In Ireland, the ITGWU broke away from a more moderate, and British-based, union. In Italy and Spain, syndicalists initially worked within the established union confederations before breaking away and forming USI and the CNT respectively. In Norway, there were both the Norwegian Trade Union Opposition (Norske Fagopposition, NFO), syndicalists working within the mainstream Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge in Norwegian, LO), and the Norwegian Syndicalist Federation (Norsk Syndikalistik Federation in Norwegian, NSF), an independent syndicalist organization set up by the Swedish SAC. In Britain, there was a similar conflict between ISEL and the local IWW organization.
By 1914, there were syndicalist national labor confederations in Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy, and France, while Belgian syndicalists were in the process of forming one. There were also groups advocating syndicalism in Russia, Japan,, the United States, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, and Great Britain. Outside of North America, the IWW also had organizations in Australia, New Zealand, where it was part of the Federation of Labour (FOL), Great Britain, though its membership had imploded by 1913, and South Africa. In Ireland, syndicalism took the form of the ITGWU, which espoused a mix of industrial unionism and socialist republicanism, and was labeled Larkinism.
Scholars have given several explanations for the emergence of syndicalism. Werner Sombart, a German economist and sociologist, commenting in 1905, ascribes the rise of syndicalism to the Italian and particularly the French mentality. He writes: "The only people who could possibly act up to such a system of teaching are Frenchmen and Italians. They are generally men who do things impulsively [...], who are seized upon by a sudden passionate enthusiasm [...], but they have little application, perseverance, calm or steadiness."
There was a significant uptick in workers' radicalism in most developed capitalist countries from 1911 to 1922, though they relented during World War I. Strikes increased in frequency, numbers of workers involved, and duration. According to van der Linden and Thorpe, syndicalism was only one way this radicalization expressed itself. In the United Kingdom, for example, the period from 1910 to 1914 became known as the Great Labour Unrest. Many historians see syndicalism as a consequence of this unrest, but Elie Halévy and the politician Lord Robert Cecil claim it was its cause. Employers in France likewise blamed an upsurge in workers' militancy in the same period on syndicalist leaders. Syndicalism was further encouraged by employers' hostility to workers' actions.
According to van der Linden and Thorpe, workers' radicalization manifested itself in their rejection of the dominant strategies in the, mostly socialist, labor movement, which was led by reformist trade unions and socialist parties. Lenin posited that "revolutionary syndicalism in many countries was a direct and inevitable result of opportunism, reformism and parliamentary cretinism." A feeling that ideological disputes were draining workers' power led Dutch, French, and American syndicalist organizations to declare themselves independent of any political groups. In countries like Italy, Spain, and Ireland, which was still under British rule, parliamentary politics were not seen as a serious means for workers to express their grievances. Most workers were disenfranchised. Yet even in France or Britain, where most male workers had the right to vote, many workers did not trust party politics. The enormous numerical growth of well-organized socialist parties, such as in Germany and Italy, did not, in the minds of many workers, correlate with any real advance in the class struggle as these parties were thought to be overly concerned with building the parties themselves and with electoral politics than with the class struggle and had therefore lost their original revolutionary edge. The socialists preached the inevitability of socialism, but were in practice bureaucratic and reformist. Similarly, the trade unions frequently allied with those parties, equally growing in numbers, were denounced for their expanding bureaucracies, their centralization, and for failing to represent workers' interests. For example, between 1902 and 1913 the German free trade unions's membership grew by 350% but its bureaucracy by more than 1900%.
Another common explanation for the rise of syndicalism that it is a result of the economic backwardness of the countries in which it emerged, particularly France. Newer studies have questioned this account. The economist Ernesto Screpanti hypothesized that strike waves such as the one from 1911 to 1922 generally occur during the upper turning-points of Kondratieff waves, periodic global long cycles of boom and bust. Such waves of proletarian insurgency, claims Screpanti, were global in reach, saw workers breaking free of the dynamics of the capitalist system, and aimed to overthrow that system.
According to van der Linden and Thorpe, changes in labor processes also contributed to the radicalization of workers and thereby to the rise of syndicalism. This rise took place during the Second Industrial Revolution. Two groups of workers were most attracted to syndicalism: casual or seasonal laborers who frequently changed jobs and workers whose occupations were being as a result of technological advances. The first group includes landless agricultural workers, construction workers, and dockers, all of whom were disproportionately represented in several countries' syndicalist movements. Because they frequently changed jobs, such workers did not have close relationships with their employers and the risk of losing one's job as a result of a strike was reduced. Moreover, because of the time constraints of their jobs they were forced to act immediately in order to achieve anything and could not plan for the long term by building up strike funds or powerful labor organizations or by engaging in mediation. Their working conditions gave them an inclination to engage in direct confrontation with employers and apply direct action. The second group includes miners, railway employees, and certain factory workers. Their occupations were deskilled by technological and organizational changes. These changes made workers from the second group similar in some respects to the first group. They did not entirely result from the introduction of new technology, but were also caused by changes in management methods. This included increased supervision of workers, piecework, internal promotions, all designed make workers docile and loyal and to transfer knowledge and control over the process of production from workers to employers. Frustration with this loss of power led to formal and informal resistance by workers. Altena disagrees with this explanation. According to him, it was workers with significant autonomy in their jobs and pride in their skills who were most attracted to syndicalism. Moreover, he argues, explanations based on workers' occupations cannot explain why only a minority of workers in those jobs became syndicalists or why in some professions workers in different locations had vastly different patterns of organization. The small size of many syndicalist unions also makes observations about which workers joined statistically irrelevant.
Syndicalism came to be seen as a viable strategy because the general strike became a practical possibility. Although it had been advocated before, there were not sufficient numbers of wage workers to bring society to a standstill and they had not achieved a sufficient degree of organization and solidarity until the 1890s, according van der Linden and Thorpe. Several general or political strikes then took place before World War: in 1893 and in 1902 in Belgium, in 1902 and in 1909 in Sweden, in 1903 in the Netherlands, in 1904 in Italy in addition to significant work stoppages during the Russian Revolution of 1905.
Darlington cites the significance of the conscious intervention by syndicalist militants. The industrial unrest of the period created conditions which made workers receptive to syndicalist leaders' agitation. They spread their ideas through pamphlets and newspapers and had considerable influence in a number of labor disputes. Finally, van der Linden and Thorpe point to spatial and geographical factors that shaped the rise of syndicalism. Workers who would otherwise not have had an inclination to syndicalism joined because syndicalism was dominant in their locales. Workers in the Canadian and American West for example, were generally more radical and drawn to the IWW and One Big Union than their counterparts in the East. Similarly, southern workers were more drawn to syndicalism in Italy. According to Altena, the emergence of syndicalism must be analyzed at the level of local communities. Only differences in local social and economic structures explain why some towns had a strong syndicalist presence, but others did not.
Syndicalism was not informed by theory or a systematically elaborated ideology the same way socialism was by Marxism. Émile Pouget, a CGT leader, maintained that: "What sets syndicalism apart from the various schools of socialism – and makes it superior – is its doctrinal sobriety. Inside the unions, there is little philosophising. They do better than that: they act!" Similarly, Andreu Nin of the Spanish CNT proclaimed in 1919: "I am a fanatic of action, of revolution. I believe in actions more than in remote ideologies and abstract questions." Though workers' education was important at least to committed activists, syndicalists distrusted bourgeois intellectuals, wanting to maintain workers' control over the movement. Syndicalist thinking was elaborated in pamphlets, leaflets, speeches, and articles and in the movement's own newspapers. These writings consisted mainly in calls to action and discussions of tactics in class struggle. The philosopher Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence introduced syndicalist ideas to a broader audience. Sorel fancied himself the premier theorist of syndicalism and was frequently thought of as such, but he was not a part of the movement and his influence on syndicalism was insignificant, except in Italy and Poland.
The extent to which syndicalist positions reflected merely the views of leaders and to what extent those positions were shared by syndicalist organizations' rank-and-file is a matter of dispute. The historian Peter Stearns, commenting on French syndicalism, concludes that most workers did not identify with syndicalism's long-range goals and that syndicalist hegemony accounts for the relatively slow growth of the French labor movement as a whole. Workers who joined the syndicalist movement, he claims, were on the whole indifferent to doctrinal questions, their membership in syndicalist organizations was partly accidental and leaders were unable convert workers to syndicalist ideas. Frederick Ridley, a political scientist, is more equivocal. According to him, leaders were very influential in the drafting of syndicalist ideas, but syndicalism was more than a mere tool of a few leaders, but a genuine product of the French labor movement. Darlington adds that in the Irish ITGWU most members were won over by the union's philosophy of direct action. Bert Altena argues that, though evidence of ordinary workers' convictions is scant, it indicates that they were aware of doctrinal differences between various currents in the labor movement and able to defend their own views. He points out that they likely understood syndicalist newspapers and debated political issues.
Syndicalism is used by some interchangeably with anarcho-syndicalism. This term was first used in 1907, by socialists criticizing the political neutrality of the CGT, although it was rarely used until the early 1920s when communists used it disparagingly. Only from 1922 was it used by self-avowed anarcho-syndicalists. Syndicalism has traditionally been seen as a current within anarchism, but in some countries it was dominated by Marxists rather than anarchists. This was the case in Italy and much of the Anglophone world, including Ireland where anarchists had no significant influence on syndicalism. The extent to which syndicalist doctrine was a product of anarchism is debated. The anarchist Iain McKay argues that syndicalism is but a new name for ideas and tactics developed by Bakunin and the anarchist wing of the First International, while it is wholly inconsistent with positions Marx and Engels took. According to him, the fact that many Marxists embraced syndicalism merely indicates that they abandoned Marx's views and converted to Bakunin's. Altena too views syndicalism as part of the broader anarchist movement, but concedes there was a tension between this and the fact that it was also a labor movement. He also sees Marxist ideas reflected in the movement, as leading syndicalists such as F. Domela Nieuwenhuis and Christiaan Cornelissen as well as much of the Australian syndicalist movement were influenced by them, as well as older socialist notions. According to Darlington, anarchism, Marxism, and revolutionary trade unionism equally contributed to syndicalism, in addition to various influences in specific countries, including Blanquism, anti-clericalism, republicanism, and agrarian radicalism.
Critique of capitalism and the state
Bill Haywood, a leading figure in the IWW, defined the union's purpose at its founding congress as "the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism". Syndicalists held that society was divided into two great classes, the working class and the bourgeoisie. Their interests being irreconcilable, they must be in a constant state of class struggle. Tom Mann, a British syndicalist, declared that "the object of the unions is to wage the Class War". This war, according to syndicalist doctrine, was aimed not just at gaining concessions such as higher wages or a shorter working day, but at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Syndicalists agreed with Karl Marx's characterization of the state as the "executive committee of the ruling class". They held that a society's economic order determined its political order and concluded that the former could not be overthrown by changes to the latter. Nevertheless, a number of leading syndicalist figures worked in political parties and some ran for elected office. Jim Larkin, the leader of the Irish ITGWU, was active in the Labour Party, Haywood in the Socialist Party of America. Yet, they saw the economic sphere as the primary arena for revolutionary struggle, while involvement in politics could at best be an "echo" of industrial struggle. They were skeptical of parliamentary politics. According to Father Thomas Hagerty, a Catholic priest and IWW leader, "dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and to my thinking it will never achieve it". Syndicalist trade unions declared their political neutrality and autonomy from political parties. Political parties, syndicalists reasoned, grouped people according to their political views, uniting members of different classes. Unions, on the other, hand were to be purely working class organizations, uniting the entire class, and could therefore not be divided on political grounds. The French syndicalist Pouget explained: "The CGT embraces – outside of all the schools of politics – all workers cognisant of the struggle to be waged for the elimination of wage-slavery and the employer class." In practice, however, this neutrality was more ambiguous. The CGT, for example, worked with the Socialist Party in the struggle against the Three-Year Law, which extended conscription. During the Spanish Civil War the CNT, whose policy barred anyone who had been a candidate for political office or had participated in political endeavors from representing it, was intimately connected with the Iberian Anarchist Federation (Federación Anarquista Ibérica, FAI).
Views on class struggle
In the syndicalist conception, unions played a dual role. They were organs of struggle within capitalism for better working conditions, but they were also to play a key role in the revolution to overthrow capitalism. Victor Griffuelhes expressed this at the CGT's 1906 congress in the following manner: "In its day-to-day demands, syndicalism seeks the co-ordination of workers' efforts, the increase of workers' well-being by the achievement of immediate improvements, such as the reduction of working hours, the increase of wages, etc. But this task is only one aspect of the work of syndicalism; it prepares for complete emancipation, which can be realised only by expropriating the capitalist class". For unions to fulfill this role, it was necessary to prevent bureaucrats – "whose sole purpose in life seems to be apologising for and defending the capitalist system of exploitation", according to Larkin – from inhibiting workers' militant zeal. Battling bureaucracy and reformism within the labor movement was a major theme for syndicalists. One expression of this was many syndicalists' rejection of collective bargaining agreements, which were thought to force labor peace upon workers and break their solidarity. The Wobblie Vincent St. John declared: "There is but one bargain that the Industrial Workers of the World will make with the employing class – complete surrender of the means of production." The Argentine Regional Workers' Federation (Federación Obrera Regional Argentina, FORA) and the OBU did, however, accept such deals and others began accepting them eventually. Similarly, syndicalist unions did not work to build large strike funds, for fear that they would create bureaucracy separate from the rank-and-file and instill in workers the expectation that the union rather than they would wage the class struggle.
Syndicalists advocated direct action, including working to rule, passive resistance, sabotage, and strikes, particularly the general strike, as tactics in the class struggle, as opposed to indirect action such as electoral politics. The IWW engaged in around 30 mostly successful civil disobedience campaigns they deemed free speech fights. Wobblies would defy laws restricting public speeches, in order to clog up prisons and court systems as a result of hundreds of arrests, ultimately forcing public officials to rescind such laws. Sabotage ranged from slow or inefficient work to destruction of machinery and physical violence. French railway and postal workers cut telegraph and signal lines during strikes in 1909 and 1910.
The final step towards revolution, according to syndicalists, would be a general strike. It would be "the curtain drop on a tired old scene of several centuries, and the curtain raising on another", according to Griffuelhes.
Syndicalists remained vague about the society they envisioned to replace capitalism, claiming that it was impossible to foresee in detail. Labor unions were seen as being the embryo of a new society in addition to being the means of struggle within the old. Syndicalists generally agreed that in a free society production would be managed by workers. The state apparatus would be replaced by the rule of workers' organizations. In such a society individuals would be liberated, both in the economic sphere but also in their private and social lives.
Syndicalist policies on gender issues were mixed. The CNT did not admit women as members until 1918. The CGT dismissed feminism as a bourgeois movement. Syndicalists were mostly indifferent to the question of women's suffrage. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an IWW organizer, insisted that women "find their power at the point of production where they work", rather than at the ballot box. Of the 230 delegates present at the founding of Canada's One Big Union, a mere 3 were women. When a female radical criticized the masculinist atmosphere at the meeting, she was rebuffed by men who insisted that labor only concern itself with class rather than gender issues. The historian Todd McCallum concludes that syndicalists in the OBU advocated values of "radical manhood".
Before World War I
Syndicalists were involved in a number strikes, labor disputes, and other struggles. In the United States, the IWW was involved in at least 150 strikes including miners' strikes in Goldfield, Nevada in 1906–1907, a steel workers' strike in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1909, a textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, timber workers' strikes in Louisiana and Arkansas in 1912–1913, and a silk workers' strike in Paterson, New Jersey. The most prominent was the struggle in Lawrence. Wobblie leaders brought together 23,000 mostly immigrant workers, many of whom did not speak English. They arranged for workers' children to be sent to live with sympathetic families outside of Lawrence for the duration of the strike so their parents could focus on the struggle. Unlike most IWW-led strikes, the struggle was successful. In Mexico, syndicalism first emerged in 1906 during a violent miners' strike in Cananea and an even more violent textile workers' strike in Río Blanco, Veracruz. In 1912, during the 1910–1920 Mexican Revolution, anarchists formed the syndicalist union House of the World Worker (Casa del Obrero Mundial). It led a series of successful strikes in 1913 in Mexico City and central Mexico. After the Constitutionalist Army occupied the capital in 1914, syndicalists allied with the government it established to defeat rural forces such as the Zapatistas and therefore received government support. Once those forces had been suppressed, this alliance broke apart and the Casa campaigned for workers' control of factories and the nationalization of foreign capital. It contributed to a rise in labor unrest that began in mid-1915. It led general strikes in May and in July–August 1916 in greater Mexico City. The latter was quelled by the army, marking the defeat of the Casa, which was also suppressed.
In Portugal, the deposition of the King in 1910 was followed by a strike wave throughout the country. After the police occupied the offices of an agricultural union, syndicalists called for a general strike. During the strike, Lisbon was controlled by workers and there were armed uprisings in several other cities. In 1912, the strike wave ebbed off. The Spanish CNT, shortly after its first congress, participated in a general strike. It was accused of having instigated the strike, but it is unclear to what extent it was responsible. In any case, the CNT was banned by the state for its role.
There was no international syndicalist organization prior to World War I. In 1907, CGT activists presented the Charter of Amiens and syndicalism to an international audience a higher form of anarchism at the International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam in 1907. Discussions at the Congress led to the formation of the international syndicalist journal Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste. The CGT was affiliated with the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers (ISNTUC), which brought together reformist socialist unions. Both the Dutch NAS and the British ISEL attempted to remedy the lack of a syndicalist counterpart to ISNTUC in 1913, simultaneously publishing calls for an international syndicalist congress in 1913. The CGT rejected the invitation. Its leaders feared that leaving ISNTUC, which it intended to revolutionize from within, would split the CGT and harm working class unity. The IWW also did not participate, as it considered itself an international in its own right. The First International Syndicalist Congress was held in London from September 27 to October 2. It was attended by 38 delegates from 65 organizations in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Cuba, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Discussions were contentious and did not lead to the founding of a syndicalist international. Delegates did agree on a declaration of principles describing syndicalism's core tenets. They also decided to launch an International Syndicalist Information Bureau and to hold another congress in Amsterdam. This congress did not take place due to the outbreak of World War I.
World War I
Syndicalists had long opposed nationalism and militarism. Haywood held that "it is better to be a traitor to your country than to your class". French syndicalists viewed the Army as the primary defender of the capitalist order. In 1901, the CGT published a manual for soldiers encouraging desertion. Similarly, in 1911 British syndicalists distributed an "Open Letter to British Soldiers" imploring them not to shoot on striking workers, but to join the working class's struggle against capital. Patriotism, syndicalists argued, was a means of integrating workers into capitalist society by distracting them from their true class interest. In 1908, the CGT's congress invoked the slogan of the First International, proclaiming that the "workers have no fatherland".
When World War I broke out in July 1914, socialist parties and trade unions – both in neutral and belligerent countries – supported their respective nations' war efforts or national defense, despite previous pledges to do the opposite. Socialists agreed to put aside class conflict and vote for war credits. German socialists argued that war was necessary to defend against Russia's barbaric Tsarism, while their French counterparts pointed to the need to defend against Prussian militarism and the German "instinct of domination and of discipline". This collaboration between the socialist movement and the state was known as the union sacrée in France, the Burgfrieden in Germany, and godsvrede in the Netherlands. Moreover, a number of anarchists led by Peter Kropotkin, including the influential syndicalist Christiaan Cornelissen, issued the Manifesto of the Sixteen, supporting the Allied cause in the war. Most syndicalists, however, remained true to their internationalist and anti-militarist principles by opposing the war and their respective nation's participation in it.
The majority of the French CGT and a sizable minority in the Italian USI did not. The CGT had long had a moderate, reformist wing, which gained the upper hand. As a result, according to historians like Darlington or van der Linden and Thorpe, the CGT was no longer a revolutionary syndicalist organization after the start of World War I. It followed the French president's call for national unity by agreeing to a no-strike pledge and to resolve labor disputes through arbitration and by actively participating in the French war effort. Most of the its members of military age were conscripted without resistance and its ranks shrank from 350,000 in 1913 to 49,000 dues-paying members in 1915. CGT leaders defended this course by arguing that France's war against Germany was a war between democracy and republicanism on the one side and barbaric militarism on the other. Italy did not initially participate in World War I, which was deeply unpopular in the country, when it broke out. The Socialist Party and the reformist General Confederation of Labor opposed Italian intervention in the Great War. Once Italy became a participant, the socialists refused to support the war effort, but also refrained from working against it. From the start of the war, even before Italy did so, a minority within USI, led by the most famous Italian syndicalist, Alceste De Ambris, called on the Italian state to take the Allies' side. The pro-war syndicalists saw Italian participation in the war as the completion of nationhood. They also felt compelled to oppose the socialists' neutrality and therefore support the war. Finally, they gave similar arguments as the French, warning of the dangers posed by the "suffocating imperialism of Germany", and felt obliged to follow the CGT's lead.
USI's pro-war wing had the support of less than a third of the organization's members and it was forced out in September 1914. Its anarchist wing, led by Armando Borghi, was firmly opposed to the war, deeming it incompatible with workers' internationalism and predicting that it would only serve elites and governments. Its opposition was met with government repression and Borghi and others were interned by the end of the war. The anti-war faction in the CGT, on the other hand, was a small minority. It was led by the likes of Pierre Monatte and Alphonse Merrheim. They would link up with anti-war socialists from around Europe at the 1915 Zimmerwald conference. They faced considerable difficulties putting up meaningful resistance against the war. The government called up militants to the Army, including Monatte. He considered refusing the order and being summarily executed, but decided this would be futile. Syndicalist organizations in other countries nearly unanimously opposed the war. "Let Germany win, let France win, it is all the same to the workers," José Negre of the CNT in neutral Spain declared. The CNT insisted that syndicalists could support neither side in an imperialist conflict. A wave of pro-British sentiment swept Ireland during the war, although the ITGWU and the rest of the Irish labor movement opposed it, and half of the ITGWU's membership enlisted in the British military. The ITGWU had also been significantly weakened in 1913 in the Dublin Lockout. After Jim Larkin left Ireland in 1914, James Connolly took over leadership of the union. Because of the organization's weakness, Connolly allied it along with its paramilitary force, the Irish Citizen Army, with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Together, they instigated the Easter Rising, seeking to weaken the British Empire and hoping that the insurrection would spread throughout Europe. The uprising was quickly quelled by the British army and Connolly was executed. In Germany, the small FVdG opposed the socialists' Burgfrieden and Germany's involvement in the war, challenging the claim that the country was waging a defensive war. Its journals were suppressed and a number of its members were arrested. The United States did not enter the war until the spring of 1917. The start of the war had induced an economic boom in the US, tightening the labor market and thereby strengthening workers' bargaining position. The IWW profited from this, more than doubling its membership between 1916 and 1917. At the same time, the Wobblies fervently denounced the war and mulled calling an anti-war general strike. Once America became a combatant, the IWW maintained its anti-war stance, while its bitter rival, the AFL, supported the war. It did not, however, launch an anti-war campaign, as it feared the government would crush it if it did and wanted to focus on its economic struggles. The IWW's practical opposition to the war was limited, 95% of eligible IWW members registered for the draft, and most of those drafted served. Syndicalists in the Netherlands and Sweden, both neutral countries, criticized the truce socialists entered with their governments in order to shore up national defense. The Dutch NAS disowned Cornelissen, one of its founders, for his support for the war.
Syndicalists from Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, France, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, and Cuba met at an anti-war congress in El Ferrol, Spain, in April 1915. The congress was poorly planned and prohibited by the Spanish authorities, but delegates managed to discuss resistance to the war and extending international cooperation between syndicalist groups. Argentine, Brazilian, Spanish, and Portuguese delegates later met in October in Rio de Janeiro to continue discussions and resolved to deepen cooperation between South American syndicalists. While syndicalists were only able to put up a rather limited practical struggle against World War I, they also looked to challenge the war on an ideological or cultural level. They pointed to the horrors of war and spurned efforts to legitimate it as something noble. German syndicalists drew attention to the death, injury, destruction, and misery that the war wrought. German, Swedish, Dutch, and Spanish syndicalists denounced nationalism with Tierra y Libertad, a syndicalist journal in Barcelona, calling it a "grotesque mentality". The Dutch newspaper De Arbeid criticized nationalism, because "it finds its embodiment in the state and is the denial of class antagonism between the haves and the have-nots". German and Spanish syndicalists went further still by putting into question the concept of nationhood itself and dismissing it as a mere social construct. The Germans pointed out that most inhabitants of the German Empire identified not as Germans, but in regional terms as Prussians or Bavarians and the like. Multilingual countries like Germany and Spain also could not claim a common language as a defining characteristic of the nation nor did members of the same nation share the same values or experiences, syndicalists in Spain and Germany argued. Syndicalists also argued against the notion that the war was a clash of different cultures or that it could be justified as a defense of civilization. Various cultures were not mutually hostile, they claimed, and the state should not be seen as the embodiment of culture, since culture was the product of the entire population, while the state acted in the interests of just a few. Moreover, they argued that if culture was to be understood as high culture, the very workers dying in the war were denied access to that culture by capitalist conditions. Finally, syndicalists railed against religious justifications for war. Before the war, they had rejected religion as divisive at best, but support for the war by both Catholic and Protestant clergy revealed their hypocrisy and disgraced the principles Christianity claimed to uphold, they claimed.
As the war progressed, disaffection with worsening living conditions at home and a growing numbers of casualties at the front eroded the enthusiasm and patriotism the outbreak of war had aroused. Prices were one the rise, food was scarce, and it became increasingly clear that the war would not be short. In Germany, for example, food shortages led to demonstrations and riots in a number of cities in the summer of 1916. At the same time, anti-war demonstrations started. Strikes picked up from around 1916 or 1917 on across Europe and soldiers began to mutiny. Workers distrusted their socialist leaders who had joined the war effort. Thanks in part to their fidelity to internationalism, syndicalist organizations profited from this development and expanded as the war drew to an end.
Russian Revolution and post-war turmoil
Disaffection with the war condensed in the post-World War I revolutions that began with the 1917 Russian Revolution. In February 1917, strikes, riots, and troop mutinies broke out in Petrograd, forcing the Russian Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate on March 2 in favor of a provisional government. Immediately, anarchist groups emerged. Russian syndicalists organized around the journal Golos Truda (The Voice of Labor), which had a circulation of around 25,000, and the Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda. Anarchists found themselves agreeing with the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin, who returned to Russia in April, as both sought to bring down the provisional government. Lenin abandoned the idea that capitalism is a necessary stage on Russia's path to communism; dismissed the establishment of a parliament, favoring that power be taken by soviets; and called for the abolition of the police, the army, the bureaucracy, and finally the state – all sentiments syndicalists shared. Although the syndicalists also welcomed the soviets, they were most enthusiastic about the factory committees and workers' councils that had emerged in all industrial centers in the course of strikes and demonstrations in the February Revolution. The committees fought for higher wages and shorter hours, but above all for workers' control over production, which both the syndicalists and Bolsheviks supported. The syndicalists viewed the factory committees as the true form of syndicalist organization, not unions. Because they were better organized, the Bolsheviks were able to gain more traction in the committees with six times as many delegates in a typical factory. Despite the goals they had in common, syndicalists became anxious about the Bolsheviks' growing influence, especially after they won majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets in September.
The Petrograd Soviet established the 66-member Military Revolutionary Committee, which included four anarchists, among them the syndicalist Shatov. On October 25, this committee led the October Revolution; after taking control of the Winter Palace and key points in the capital with little resistance, it proclaimed a Soviet government. Anarchists were jubilant at the toppling of the provisional government. They were concerned about the proclamation of a new government, fearing a dictatorship of the proletariat, even more so after the Bolsheviks created the central Soviet of People's Commissars composed only of members of their party. They called for decentralization of power, but agreed with Lenin's labor program, which endorsed workers' control in all enterprises of a certain minimum size. The introduction of workers' control led to economic chaos. Lenin turned to restoring discipline in the factories and order to the economy in December by putting the economy under state control. At a trade union congress in January, the syndicalists, who had paid little attention to the unions, only had 6 delegates, while the Bolsheviks had 273. No longer depending on their help in toppling the provisional government, the Bolsheviks were now in a position to ignore the syndicalists' opposition and outvoted them at this congress. They opted to disempower local committees by subordinating them to the trade unions, which in turn became organs of the state. The Bolsheviks argued that workers' control did not mean that workers controlled factories at the local level and that this control had to be centralized and put under a broader economic plan. The syndicalists criticized the Bolshevik regime bitterly, characterizing it as state capitalist. They denounced state control over the factories and agitated for decentralization of power in politics and the economy and "syndicalization" of industry. The Civil War against the White Army split anarchists. The syndicalists were criticized harshly, because most supported the Bolshevik regime in the war even as they excoriated Bolshevik policy. They reasoned that a White victory would be worse and that the Whites had to be defeated before a third revolution could topple the Bolsheviks. Yet, syndicalists were harassed and repeatedly arrested by the police, particularly the Cheka, from 1919 on. Their demands had some sway with workers and dissidents within the Bolshevik party and the Bolshevik leadership viewed them as the most dangerous part of the libertarian movement. After the Civil War ended, workers and sailors, including both anarchists and Bolsheviks, rose up in 1921 in Kronstadt, a bastion of radicalism since 1905, against what they saw as the rule of a small number of bureaucrats. Anarchists hailed the rebellion as the start of the third revolution. The government reacted by having anarchists throughout the country arrested, including a number of syndicalist leaders. The Russian syndicalist movement was thereby defeated.
Syndicalists in the West who had opposed World War I reacted gushingly to the Russian Revolution. Though they were still coming to grips with the evolving Bolshevik ideology and despite traditional anarchist suspicions of Marxism, they saw in Russia a revolution that had taken place against parliamentary politics and under the influence of workers' councils. They also, at this point, had only limited knowledge of the reality in Russia. Augustin Souchy, a German anarcho-syndicalist, hailed it "the great passion that swept us all along. In the East, so we believed, the sun of freedom rose." The Spanish CNT declared: "Bolshevism is the name, but the idea is that of all revolutions: economic freedom. [...] Bolshevism is the new life for which we struggle, it is freedom, harmony, justice, it is the life that we want and will enforce in the world." De Borghi recalled: "We exulted in its victories. We trembled at its risks.[...] We made a symbol and an altar of its name, its dead, its living and its heroes." He called on Italians to "do as they did in Russia". Indeed, a revolutionary wave, inspired in part by Russia, swept Europe in the following years.
In Germany, strikes and protests against food shortage, mainly by women, escalated and by 1917 had eroded public confidence in the government. The German Emperor was forced to abdicate in November 1918 after sailors' mutinies sparked an insurrectionary movement throughout the country. The syndicalist FVdG, which had just 6,000 members before the war and was almost completely suppressed by the state during the war, regrouped at a conference in Berlin in December 1918. It was active in the revolutionary events of the following years, particularly in the Ruhr area. It supported spontaneous strikes and championed direct action and sabotage. The FVdG started to be held in high regard for its radicalism by workers, particularly miners, who appreciated the syndicalists' ability to theorize their struggles and their experience with direct action methods. Starting in the second half of 1919, workers disappointed by the socialist party's and unions' support for the war and previously non-unionized unskilled workers who were radicalized during the war flocked to the FVdG. The revolution also saw the introduction to Germany of industrial unionism along the lines of the IWW with some support from the American organization, but also with links to the left wing of the Communist Party. In December 1919, the Free Workers' Union of Germany (Syndicalists) (Freie Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands (Syndikalisten), FAUD) was formed, claiming to represent over 110,000 workers, more than eighteen times the FVdG's pre-war membership. Most of the new organization came from the FVdG, but industrial unionists, whose influence was dwindling, were also involved. Rudolf Rocker, an anarchist recently returned to Germany after spending several years in London, wrote the FAUD's program.
In Brazil, in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, syndicalists, along with anarchists and socialists, were leaders in a cycle of labor struggles from 1917 to 1919. It included a general strike in 1917, a failed uprising in 1918 inspired by the Russian Revolution, and a number of smaller strikes. The movement was put down by increased organization by employers to resist workers' demands and by government repression, including the closure of unions, arrests, deportations of foreign militants, and violence, with some 200 workers killed in São Paulo alone.
The United States underwent an increase in labor militancy during the post-war period. 1919 saw a a general strike in Seattle, large miners' strikes, a police strike in Boston, and a nationwide steel strike. The IWW, however, had been nearly destroyed in the previous two years by local criminal syndicalism laws, the federal government, and vigilante violence. It attempted to take credit for some of the strikes, but in reality was too weak to play a significant role. The post-war Red Scare intensified the attacks on the IWW and by the end of 1919 the IWW was practically powerless. In 1919 Canada was hit by a labor revolt. The unrest also led to the formation of the One Big Union, which was only partly industrial unionist.
The International Workers' Association, formed in 1922, is an international syndicalist federation of various labour unions from different countries. At its peak, it represented millions of workers and competed directly for the hearts and minds of the working class with social democratic unions and parties.
From the early 1920s, syndicalist movements in most countries began to decline. Faced with this decline, syndicalist organizations had three choices: They could stay true to their revolutionary principles and be marginalized. They could give up those principles in order to adapt to new conditions. Finally, they could disband or merge into non-syndicalist organizations. The IWW is an example of the first case. The French CGT, which according to van der Linden and Thorpe was no longer syndicalist after 1914, went the second route.
Georges Sorel, a prominent revolutionary syndicalist of the era, played a role in shaping the views of Benito Mussolini and by extension the wider Italian fascist movement. In March 1921, Sorel wrote that Mussolini was "a man no less extraordinary than Lenin". After Sorel's death in 1922, Agostino Lanzillo, a one-time syndicalist leader who had become a fascist, wrote in the Italian fascist review Gerarchia, which was edited by Mussolini: "Perhaps fascism may have the good fortune to fulfill a mission that is the implicit aspiration of the whole oeuvre of the master of syndicalism: to tear away the proletariat from the domination of the Socialist party, to reconstitute it on the basis of spiritual liberty, and to animate it with the breath of creative violence. This would be the true revolution that would mold the forms of the Italy of tomorrow".
Spanish Civil War
The anarcho-syndicalist revolution during the Spanish Civil War resulted in the widespread implementation of anarchist and more broadly socialist organisational principles throughout various portions of the country for two to three years, primarily Catalonia, Aragon, Andalusia and parts of the Levante. Much of Spain's economy was put under worker control—in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%.
Syndicalism's decline was the result of a number of factors. In Russia, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, syndicalist movements were suppressed by authoritarian governments. The IWW in the United States and the Mexican House of the World Worker were weakened considerably by state repression. Syndicalist movements that were not suppressed also declined. According to van der Linden and Thorpe, this was the result of the "rise of the welfare state and the conditions of the long-term integration of labour in advanced capitalist economies".
Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War put an end to syndicalism as a mass movement. Immediately after World War II, there were attempts to rekindle anarcho-syndicalism in Germany, but they were thwarted by Cold War anti-communism, Stalinism, and a failure to attract newer younger activists. Syndicalists maintained a certain influence within Latin American labor movements into the 1970s. The protest movements of the late 1960s saw renewed interest in syndicalism by activists in Germany, the US, and Britain. In the 1980s, in communist Poland, the trade union Solidarity (Solidarność), though not strictly syndicalist, attracted masses of dissident workers by reviving many syndicalist ideas and practices.
The IWA exists to this day, but with very little influence. At most, it is a "flicker of history, the custodian of doctrine" according to Wayne Thorpe. Among its member organizations is the British Solidarity Federation, which was formed in 1994, but has roots going back to 1950. It also includes the German Free Workers' Union (Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter-Union, FAU) formed to carry on the FAUD's tradition in 1977, but with a membership of just 350 as of 2011. Spain has several syndicalist federations, including the CNT, which is still part of the IWA and has around 50,000 members as of 2018. After being defeated in the Civil War, tens of thousands of CNT militants went into exile, mostly in France. In exile, the organization atrophied, with just 5,000 mostly older members by 1960. During Spain's transition to democracy, the CNT was revived with a peak membership of over 300,000 in 1978. However, it was soon weakened, first by accusations of having been involved in the bombing of a nightclub, then by a schism. Members who favored participation in state-sponsored union elections left and formed an organization they would eventually name the General Confederation of Labor (Confederación General del Trabajo, CGT). Despite these concessions, the CGT still views itself as an anarcho-syndicalist organization and has around 100,000 members as of 2018.
Stearns, in his study of French syndicalism, concludes that it was a dismal failure. The radicalism of syndicalist labor leaders, he claims, shocked French workers and the government and thereby weakened the labor movement as a whole. Syndicalism was most popular among workers not yet fully integrated into modern capitalist industry, but most French workers had adapted to this system and accepted it, according to Stearns. Therefore, syndicalism was not able to seriously challenge prevailing conditions or even scare politicians and employers. Similarly, scholars such as Robert Hoxie, Selig Perlman, and Patrick Renshaw deem the IWW's radicalism to have been at odds with the conservatism of the American working class as a whole, leading to the demise of the former.
- The transplantation of the term into languages in which the etymological link to unionism was lost, was frequently criticized. Opponents of syndicalism in Northern and Central Europe seized upon this to characterize it as something non-native, even dangerous. When the Free Association of German Trade Unions (Freie Vereinigung deutscher Gewerkschaften, FVdG) endorsed syndicalism in 1908, it did not at first use the term for fear of using "foreign names".
- He adds that this definition does not encompass communist or socialist unions, because the syndicalist conception "differed from both socialist and communist counterparts in viewing the decisive agency of the revolutionary transformation of society to be unions, as opposed to political parties or the state and of a collectivized worker-managed socio-economic order to be run by unions, as opposed to political parties or the state."
- The CGT's absence led the New Statesman to liken the Congress to "to playing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark".
- Russian, Serbian, and Italian socialists did not.
- Most syndicalists were exiled to Western Europe or America before the revolution and started returning in the summer. The most prominent syndicalists who returned to Russia were Maksim Raevskii, Vladimir Shatov, Alexander Schapiro, a participant in the 1913 syndicalist congress in London, and Vseolod Mikhailovich Eikhenbaum, known as Volin. They were joined by the young local Grigorii Petrovitch Maksimov. In their New York exile, Raevskii, Shatov, and Volin had worked on the syndicalist journal Golos Truda, then the organ of the Union of Russian Workers. They brought it with them proceeded to publish in Petrograd looking to spread syndicalist ideas among workers by introducing them to French movement and the general strike. Outside of Petrograd, syndicalism also gained followers in Vyborg, Moscow, and in the south among the miners in the Donets Basin and cement workers and longshoremen in Ekaterinodar and Novorossiisk.
- Volin derided the unions, which were dominated by Mensheviks, as a "mediator between labor and capital" and as "reformist".
- Compared with the mass revolts in February it was more of a coup d'état. No more than 30,000 participated, according to its commander Leon Trotsky.
- Golos Truda was suppressed and replaced with a new, but short-lived journal, Vol'nyi Golos Truda (The Free Voice of Labor). A first All-Russian Conference of Anarcho-Syndicalists was held August 1918, followed by a second in November, which established an All-Russian Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists. There is no evidence the Confederation was effective in coordinating syndicalist activities.
- Schapiro served in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, while remaining a committed syndicalist and moderate critic of the regime. Shatov fought in the Red Army and eventually abandoned syndicalism. A number of anarchists fell in the Civil War.
- Pro-war syndicalists in the CGT, on the other hand, viewed the revolution as treason, because the Bolsheviks withdrew Russia from the war. Alceste De Ambris and the syndicalist supporters of war in Italy also denounced the upheaval as a challenge to nationalism.
- The Swedish SAC initially chose the first option, but as an increasing number of workers left to join the mainstream unions, it changed course and became increasingly reformist. For example, in the 1930s unemployment funds were set up in Sweden, managed by unions but with significant contributions from the state. The SAC initially refused to participate, but the ensuing loss in membership forced the SAC to give in. SAC membership then started to slowly rise.
- Hobsbawm 1973, pg. 72.
- Darlington 2008, pg. 4, Thorpe 2010b, pg. 25.
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- Darlington 2008, pg. 4–5, Thorpe 2010b, pg. 25.
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- Olssen 1992, pg. 108
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- McCallum 1998, pg. 15–16.
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- Avrich 1967, pg. 127–129
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