Misunderstanding syndicalism

April 29, 2015

TIM GOULET'S review of Ralph Darlington's Radical Unionism ("Syndicalism's lessons") makes a number of mistaken claims about revolutionary syndicalism, based on fundamental inadequacies in Darlington's book.

The claim that "syndicalist unions broke off from mainstream federations to form 'purely revolutionary' unions, cutting themselves off from the mass of workers" doesn't hold up, though it does conform to the Leninist orthodoxy of "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder. There were many countries where the syndicalist unions were the majority--such as Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Brazil. Syndicalist unions in South Africa, such as the Industrial Workers of Africa (modeled on the Industrial Workers of the World), were the only unions that organized native African workers, who were excluded from the white craft unions.

At the time of the mass occupation of the factories in Italy in September 1920, the USI (Italian Syndicalist Union) was claiming 800,000 members, and the factory councils formed throughout Italy in those events were mostly organized by the USI. Moreover, it was the anarcho-syndicalists who initiated a militia movement ("arditti del popolo") to fight Mussolini's fascist squads. But the Communists didn't cooperate, and the Socialist Party capitulated to fascism.

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Darlington makes the usual mistake of supposing the IWW went into decline with government repression in 1917. Actually the IWW continued to grow in the early 1920s, reaching its peak in 1923. The IWW mass unions were in industries where there either was no American Federation of Labor (AFL) union or a competing AFL union that was no larger than the IWW union. Moreover, in industries where IWW was a minority they often worked as a "dual card" pressure group within the AFL unions.

MOREOVER, THE claim that revolutionary syndicalism "rejects politics" contradicts the criticism that syndicalists have an unrealistic ideal of a highly politicized unionism that can play a revolutionary role. You need to make up your mind which criticism you want to make: Did syndicalists advocate a narrow focus on merely economic issues ("economism") or did they have unrealistic expectations of the political role unionism could play? These two traditional Leninist criticisms are logically inconsistent with each other.

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In Spain at present, the two syndicalist unions, the CGT and CNT, often work to develop alliances with social movements (women's groups, ecologists, housing squatters) as in general strike mobilizations. The CGT has separate encuentros (meetings) for its women members to develop campaigns--as for example their current campaign for free abortion on demand, against the right-wing government's efforts to criminalize abortion. These are examples of how the unions do develop political strategy and focus.

Moreover, it was Marxism that historically proposed a division of labor, with "politics" being reserved for the party and the union relegated to "the economic sphere." In practice, this has always been used as an excuse by union leaders to avoid mass action around larger political questions. They will tell workers they need to vote for the party. This was the role the Communist Party played in demobilizing the population in France after the mass general strike in 1968.

The claim that syndicalists over-emphasize "spontaneity" is also at odds with the syndicalist emphasis on preparation and building the capacity of militants, as with the many dozens of worker schools and cultural centers organized throughout working-class neighborhoods of Barcelona and Valencia in Spain in the 1930s.

There is also a mistaken conception offered of the revolutionary general strike. As Lucy Parsons said in her remarks to the founding convention of the IWW, the syndicalist conception is an "inside" strike--a generalized takeover of the means of production and all the capitalists' assets.

The syndicalist idea is that having a grassroots worker mass movement in the workplaces provides a movement with the skills and position to carry out this generalized lockout of the bosses, and to carry on production to ensure that people's needs are met. We have a vivid example of an expropriating general strike in the mass seizure of industry and farmland by the syndicalist unions in Spain in 1936. More than 18,000 companies and 14 million acres of farmland were expropriated, according to UPI reporter Burnet Bolleten.

The CNT movement of 1936--the majority labor organization in the country--also smashed up the army in many parts of the country and built its own proletarian army of about 100,000 to fight the fascists. This is clearly a demonstration of the possibility of a union movement playing a revolutionary role.

As Marx put it: "If the trades unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labor, they are still more important as organized agencies for superseding the very system of wages labor and capital rule."
Tom Wetzel, Hayward, California

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