Contradictions of syndicalism

May 21, 2015

Tim Goulet responds to a critique of his review of a book on revolutionary syndicalism.

IN A recent response to my book review of Ralph Darlington's Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism ("Syndicalism's Lessons") Tom Wetzel voiced disagreement to some of my positions, based on what he claims are a number of "fundamental inadequacies" contained in Darlington's book ("Misunderstanding syndicalism").

I appreciate his reply, and for providing a forum. I hope this interchange helps spawn a larger debate on what are instrumental subjects for the left--the strengths and weaknesses of syndicalism, how those lessons can be applied to rebuilding a fighting labor movement today, and the way we conceive of the revolutionary movement in general.

For starters, I believe Wetzel seriously misreads--or glosses over--the main methodology of Darlington's book; a comparative project focusing on six of the most noteworthy syndicalist formations (General Confederation of Labor, Italian Syndicalist Union, Industrial Workers of the World, Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, Industrial Syndicalist Education League, and Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement). These were chosen due to their advanced levels of industrial and political development--the large size and influence they had on their immediate milieu--and the decisive impact they played in sustaining the syndicalist movement internationally.

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These six formations, according to Darlington, "also allowed a synchronic comparison between movements which had their origins, developed, reached their high point and subsequently declined during a roughly similar period," allowing the possibility to draw out "shared themes" and "common impulses," in an attempt to develop an "international perspective."

As the author states in the outset of the book, "[W]hile there is a good deal of general literature available of revolutionary syndicalist movements, it suffers from some crucial limitations." Most of what exists is confined to "single country explorations," makes very little attempt to draw cross-country comparisons, and mostly "tend to obscure" the "factors that gave rise to its origin, development, dynamics and trajectory."

But perhaps Darlington's greatest contribution lies in his systematic examination of the convergence between the very best of two revolutionary traditions: the Communist and syndicalist movements following the Russian Revolution.

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He writes that the "experiences of both industrial militants and revolutionary Marxists in Europe and North America at the end of the First World War led them, in different ways, to a re-evaluation of their tactics, goals, ideologies and organizations, resulting in a 'new synthesis of politics and economics' (of revolutionary socialism and industrial struggles) within the Communist International."

Many syndicalists came to a "critical reconsideration" of insular economic struggle and that they could no longer afford to ignore the centrality of the capitalist state. On the other hand, many Marxists, were for the first time beginning to accept the indispensability of an industrial component to their revolutionary program.

It is the documentation of the multifaceted debates that came out of the Second Congress of the Comintern and its auxiliary organization, the Red International of Labor Unions, along with Darlington's sharp analysis, that makes Radical Unionism such an essential read.

WETZEL ALSO wrote, "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." He asks, "Did syndicalism 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."

What do Marxists mean when we say syndicalism rejects politics?

In What Is to Be Done? Lenin defines economism as an insular embrace of pure trade unionism that predominately confines workers to the economic struggle only. As a form of workerism, it tends to be suspicious of any matter that is not "purely" working-class. And while it does embrace a narrow form of strictly working-class politics, they are seen as a secondary concern, and are subordinated to immediate fights at the point of production.

In essence, Lenin differentiates between "trade-union" politics, and the politics of revolutionary Marxism. The crux of Lenin's argument was: Revolutionary work must consist in organizing both inside and outside the workplace. Lenin writes:

Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats; for the self-knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a clear theoretical understanding--or rather, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical, understanding--of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political order to become a Social-Democrat, the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grasp the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real "inner workings"; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected.

Why does revolutionary consciousness require a profound knowledge of the "inner workings" of all social classes? Because in order for the industrial working class to become fit not just to defeat the capitalist class, but to lead all other oppressed, exploited, and alienated strata--which requires, in part, acting to convince them that their material interests are intertwined with the fate of the working-class movement--the leadership of the working-class movement must understand those classes' interests and psychology well as it understands its own.

This is true, in turn, because the leadership of the working-class movement must, importantly, learn to recognize and resist the pull of ideological frameworks which end up serving other class' interests--like reformism, centrism, middle-class "left" substitutionism, or purely moralistic responses to oppression.

The working class can only achieve this practical consciousness through the organization of comprehensive "political exposures" and the struggle for working-class leadership in every sphere of social life--not just in the workplace. Moreover, it is only through this expansive organization of political agitation that it can learn to lead all oppressed strata against the capitalist state.

This is why Lenin wrote that revolutionaries should not strive to be the "trade-union secretary," but the "tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects"--in other words, not merely because oppression divides the working class against itself.

WHILE SYNDICALISTS might develop links with social movements in their immediate periphery, and in so doing, strengthen their union base in the course of the economic struggle--they may even make political demands for reforms on the government such as labor legislation and the like--revolutionary work consists in more than fighting the government for union members' interests outside of the workplace, it must ultimately consist in fighting the state, full stop.

This means building revolutionary organizations led by and based on the power of rank-and-file militants, but not artificially limiting organizations to developing influence only among this layer. It means fighting for the interests of all the oppressed and exploited and building a united front capable of actually winning state power, so that the capitalist class may be defeated, for good.

Thus, we hope it can be seen that there is no contradiction between holding that syndicalism can be both narrowly focused on "economic" issues--among which we count even demands for reforms directed to the state--and held back by the inherent limits of even the most political trade unionism. Both dodge the key task for attaining revolutionary consciousness, of fighting for working-class leadership among all who have complaints against capitalism and the capitalist state.

In hammering home the centrality of unions, Wetzel quotes Karl Marx from a resolution adopted by the First Congress of the International Working Men's Organization (the First International): "If the trade 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."

I cannot argue with Wetzel here. Rebuilding our class organizations, the unions, is a necessary step if we are ever going to achieve workers' power. But up until now, unions have been only sectional in nature. Which is why Marx also wrote that, "Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction."

Far from adopting an insular workerist perspective, "[t]hey must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions."

Jon Kurinsky contributed to this article.

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