Syndicalism and taking power

May 26, 2015

I WANT to thank Tim Goulet for his review ("Syndicalism's lessons") of Ralph Darlington's book on syndicalism (Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Syndicalism) and Tom Wetzel for taking the time to write to with his disagreement ("Misunderstanding syndicalism").

In his response, Wetzel takes issue with the claim that syndicalists "reject politics," because he claims that there are syndicalists who "do develop political strategy and focus." He argues: "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."

We agree on the need to prepare and build up the fighting capacity of working-class militants if we are to succeed in the struggles ahead, especially during periods of revolution. Where we differ with syndicalists is in our understanding of politics--and the political tasks we think are necessary to prepare for and win a revolution.

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From a contemporary vantage point, it may appear that the Spanish syndicalists didn't "over-emphasize spontaneity"--after all, they were organized and had hundreds of thousands, eventually over a million and a half, members. But the reason Goulet claims that syndicalist organizations yield to spontaneity is because they abstain from struggle over certain key questions of political power that arise outside of the workplace, not that they don't build fighting organizations. Readers should evaluate our criticism of the Spanish syndicalists with reference to what they actually did in response to the most critical questions of political power that the revolution imposed on them.

When we say syndicalists "reject politics," it's shorthand for our claim that they have a tendency to yield to liberalism, in some situations, if not in all of them. There are few greater examples of yielding to liberalism and spontaneity than the Spanish syndicalists' refusal to deal with one of the central questions of power in the revolution: The need to seize the Bank of Spain from the Republicans and stop the flow of gold to Stalin and Franco before it began.

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To be very direct, I'd like to hear from Wetzel why he thinks that the Spanish syndicalists refused to seize the country's gold and use it for revolutionary ends.

Some of them talked about it in August 1936--and then did nothing about it. On one of the most critical questions of power they faced in the revolution, they abstained from politics. By October of that year, over a billion (1936) dollars in Spanish gold was under Stalin's control in Moscow--at a time when the bureaucratic dictator was marching millions to the slave labor camps.

It's hard to imagine how the Republican government would have survived for very long had the syndicalists seized the gold and used it advance the revolution. If they had, history might have been very different. Unfortunately, they allowed the country's wealth to fall into the hands of two of the most brutal counter-revolutionary dictators in human history. That's what we mean when we say that syndicalists yield to spontaneity and liberalism, and abstain from politics.

IN WHAT Is to Be Done? Lenin argued that economism is a particular variant of a larger tendency that exists in revolutionary movements, and which must be combatted if the working class is to eventually be victorious: that of yielding to the ruling class on political questions outside the workplace (which in turn can lead to a similar yielding within the workplace).

Lenin makes this claim most pointedly in response to the economists' refusal to place the demand raised by the people for the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsarist state, and the tasks necessary to prepare for that overthrow, at the center their understanding of what the revolutionary movement in Russia must do. Since Lenin argued that all other questions flowed from this key demand, for him, the degradation of what was necessary to accomplish this task served the ruling class.

A fitting comparison in the context of the Spanish Civil War is the refusal of the syndicalists to resolve the problem of state power, including the question of what to do with the Bank of Spain, in favor of the working class. To reject taking power in this context leaves power in the hands of the exploiters--which in the context of 1936 meant missing another opportunity to begin to turn the tide against the growing threat of Stalin and Hitler.

So our criticism of the Spanish syndicalists isn't just that they focused too narrowly on the immediate economic struggle against the capitalists at the point of production. Wetzel is right that we can provide examples of where some syndicalists went further than this, and that's the point of a large portion of Darlington's book: exploring how syndicalism and revolutionary socialism influenced each other, and the process by which many syndicalists became Marxists. Our criticism of the Spanish syndicalists is that their narrow focus on radical unionism and their rigid rejection of political power caused them to abstain from the fight to solve--in a really revolutionary way--some of the most important political questions of the Spanish Revolution.

We agree with the syndicalists that the central purpose of revolutionary politics is the preparation of the working class for its own self-emancipation. But Leninists do not think that abstaining from political struggle advances our common aim of workers' power. Instead, we argue that we need to be ready to exploit every political problem that exists in capitalist society, including the question of state power, in order to train the working class to govern and to shift the balance of forces in favor of its struggle for the liberation of all who are oppressed. For us, this conception alone is worthy of the name of "politics."
Brian Kelly, Chicago

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