Syndicalism’s lessons

April 22, 2015

The new book Radical Unionism makes important arguments about the history of the syndicalist movement that ring true today, explains Tim Goulet.

THE FIRST two decades of the 20th century saw a dramatic rise in strike action in several parts of the world, a strong increase in union density, and workers coming to increasingly more radical conclusions about capitalism.

Interacting with, and in turn inspiring, this industrial militancy was syndicalism--a radical unionism movement that advocated direct action on the shop floor as a way of battling the capitalist system. In the course of these struggles, several syndicalist unions were born, and many existing unions were won over to syndicalist principles.

Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism by Ralph Darlington is a comprehensive analysis of the syndicalist movement. The first half of the book provides an in-depth examination of six different formations influenced by syndicalism, including: the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) in France, the USI (Italian Syndicalist Union) in Italy, the CNT (National Confederation of Labor) in Spain, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in Ireland, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) in the U.S., and the Industrial Syndicalist Education League and the leadership of the Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement in Britain.

Women members of the IWW lead a march in Manhattan during the Patterson Silk Strike of 1913
Women members of the IWW lead a march in Manhattan during the Patterson Silk Strike of 1913

The second half of the book assesses the intersection of syndicalism and communism following the October 1917 Russian Revolution.

The chief focus of Radical Unionism is its attempt to use a Marxist analysis to identify the essential features of syndicalism, while still explaining the differences that reflected "national conditions and traditions." Darlington situates the rise and fall of syndicalism in a set of social and material conditions, offering an incisive assessment of its practice that can help inform our understanding of trade unions today. For this reason, Radical Unionism is worthy of attention.

THE RISE of syndicalism was part of a broader working-class radicalization. Disaffected with reformist social-democratic parties and bureaucratic trade union leaderships, rank-and-file unionists organized independently of these forces at the point of production to demand better pay and working conditions. Of all the disparate ideologies within the movement, syndicalism appealed to many of the most militant workers.

What exactly is syndicalism? In practice, there were some central tenets that "all varieties of syndicalism had in common," writes Darlington. These included a rejection of parliamentary democracy and working within capitalist institutions; autonomy from political parties; support of workers' control of production and the general strike as a revolutionary weapon; staunch anti-militarism and internationalism; and the view that trade unions would be revolutionary bodies and organs of a future society.

Although syndicalists laid no claim to being able to sketch out a blueprint for what a future society might look like, one thing was certain--workers' control of the productive process was an absolute necessity. "Instead of the statist conception of socialism introduced from above, syndicalists insisted that society's revolutionary transformation had to come from below," writes Darlington, echoing Karl Marx's words that "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves."

Darlington lists this commitment to workers' self-emancipation among the features of syndicalism worthy of praise--along with its anti-militarism and internationalism. But chief among syndicalism's weaknesses, Darlington argues, were its rejection of politics--what Russian revolutionary Lenin referred to as "economism"--and subsequent rejection of the need for a revolutionary party.

Trade union autonomy was put forward as an absolute principle, while subordinating politics to the economic field of struggle. This perspective included an overblown idealization of trade unions, which were seen as revolutionary bodies. In many instances, syndicalists unions broke off from mainstream federations to form "purely revolutionary" unions, cutting themselves off from the mass of workers.

Also fetishized was the general strike. Syndicalists believed a mass strike had the power to totally shut down society, leading to a situation in which, explains Darlington, "Neither the capitalist class nor the state would be able to provide basic services and overall authority would pass inexorably into the hands of the only bodies able to do so, the trade unions."

Like any social movement or organization, conscious direction is a necessity. But due to "anti-leadership convictions" and an emphasis on localism and decentralization, syndicalist movements were in many cases reduced "to the level of spontaneity," which "undermined the basis for effective coordinated action."

"REVOLUTIONARY SYNDICALISTS across the world received the news of the October 1917 revolution with jubilant enthusiasm and their newspapers rushed to declare solidarity with it," writes Darlington. And while the Second International had collapsed in disgrace into the arms of reformism and nationalism, the Third International (the Communist International, or Comintern) was infused with new vigor and credibility in the aftermath of the successful Bolshevik Revolution.

In the founding congress, notes Darlington, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put forth the call to form "a block with those elements in the revolutionary workers' movement" who were not yet in political parties. "Chief among these are the syndicalist elements," argued Trotsky.

To aid in the facilitation of this process, the Comintern built a subsidiary organization, the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU). The reformist leaders of the mainstream union movement, having been discredited by supporting the war effort in their individual imperialist countries, would hopefully serve as an impetus for winning masses of workers, and even whole unions, away from their reach.

At the opening congresses of the RILU and the Comintern, proposals toward this end were made, and the ensuing debates were filled with rich political, organizational, theoretical and tactical questions that are still of importance today.

The Theses of the Second Congress of the Comintern acknowledged that syndicalism was a step forward from parliamentary socialism, and Lenin and Trotsky believed that the syndicalist conception of an "active minority" approximated something of a vanguard party in embryo.

But ultimately, the lesson generalized was that the Russian Revolution confirmed the need for a revolutionary party rooted in the working class and the perspective on the state embodied in Lenin's State and Revolution--and that these points should guide the workers' movement internationally.

The events of the Russian Revolution demonstrated the indispensability of a centralized and disciplined revolutionary party, not only in leading the working class to the conquest of state power, but in participating in the struggle beforehand. A revolutionary party led by its most militant, combative and class-conscious workers would formulate a program combining the immediate demands of the movement and the ultimate aim of reconstituting society on a socialist basis.

As Lenin wrote in "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder, "[T]he experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown...that absolute centralization and the strictest discipline of the proletariat constitute one of the fundamental conditions for victory over the bourgeoisie."

How is this discipline maintained? By the class-consciousness of the vanguard, its organic connection to the working class and the practical test of its theory, tactics and strategy.

Contrary to many of the "ultra-left" tendencies among syndicalists, Lenin's stress was on how to retreat effectively in the class struggle receded, how to maneuver and even how to compromise if necessary. The rejection of such tactics "on principle" would ultimately play a role in the dissolution of syndicalism as a revolutionary movement.

TROTSKY ONCE wrote that syndicalism was a thing of the past, and therefore returning to it would constitute a "retrogression." Perhaps we can say today that this is both true and false. With organized labor in retreat and engaged in mostly defensive actions when it is engaged at all, a radical movement at the point of production would be a major step forward.

But while syndicalism doesn't exist today, many of its bad habits do. Syndicalism's rejection of political activism and deference to spontaneity was a recipe for ineffectiveness. Although many workers were initially attracted to direct action, they were liable to drop out of if there was not continual political activity to sustain them when struggles began to wane. Darlington writes:

For example, the Wobblies excelled in rushing around the country to wherever a strike was taking place, and leading the struggle in a militant and inspirational way. But they would then leave for action elsewhere, failing to grasp the importance of political organization and understanding to ensure more than a tiny number of workers would stay changed after the strike ended. Relating their militant style of trade unionism to the level of class struggle meant that they effectively rose and fell with that struggle.

Any advance in consciousness would be temporary at best if not "embedded in political organization."

Furthermore, by declaring complete independence from political parties, the syndicalists conceded ground to opposing class interests. If the working class did not have its own political program, the ruling class would provide one for them.

We should wary of such "economism" today. There always exists a tendency to make an absolute principle out of the necessity for concrete action, while dispensing with the need for conscious strategy and debate. We should reject the belief that the answer to all questions is to take up the metaphorical "cudgel" and bypass the painstaking and arduous work of organization building. This is always tempting to radicals as it represents the line of least resistance.

All in all, the relationship between industrial and political organization, the question of state power and the conception of party and class still retain their validity to social movements today. Radical Unionism is a valuable resource for workers, organizers and students of labor history alike.

Jon Kurinsky contributed to this article.

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