In the wrong place at the right time

June 9, 2015

WE WERE pleased to see Tim Goulet's and Brian Kelly's responses ("Contradictions of syndicalism" and "Syndicalism and taking power") in an ongoing debate about syndicalism with Tom Wetzel ("Misunderstanding syndicalism" and "Confusion about political power"). We would additionally like to respond to some of the specific historical charges made by Wetzel, in an effort to clarify the questions at hand.

First, it's worth noting that as revolutionary socialists, we don't treat everything or anything that Lenin wrote as an "orthodoxy," to be invoked and repeated regardless of historical circumstance. On the contrary, nearly everything that Lenin wrote was a response to a specific political question faced by the workers movement in his day.

Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was no different. It was actually a published pamphlet written for the delegates to the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, to provoke a discussion about the abstentionist strategies then common around Europe.

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Lenin was responding to a historical setting where the economies of the global capitalist center in Europe were in crisis, and revolutionary political movements existed that could vie for power, especially in Germany, Italy and France. Rather than attack syndicalism for the sake of doing so, Lenin's pamphlet was specifically addressed to a highly specific debate on trade union and parliamentary strategy then taking place between representatives of several different political forces sympathetic to communism: the Communist Workers Party (KAPD in German) in Germany, the left wing of the Italian Socialist Party, but also the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the Anglophone world, among others.

Hence, there is no reason that Lenin would have been arguing about the relevance of syndicalism in Latin America or elsewhere. That is a historical sleight of hand on Wetzel's part.

IN FACT, it was true that the "ultra-left" currents in Europe and the U.S. were cutting themselves off from the mass of workers in the different countries where they operated. In Germany, the KAPD (followers of Dutch Communists Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek) theoretically and practically rejected trade unionism in principle and demanded that their members abandon trade unions in order to create new revolutionary economic organizations (which by the way never amounted to anything).

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In a revolutionary moment, when millions of German workers were pouring into trade unions by the year, this was a particularly poor strategic decision, and misses the fact that it was revolutionaries arguing inside the social-democratic metal workers union that led to the major antiwar strikes in Berlin and helped bring down the Kaiser in November 1918.

In Italy, a similar dynamic was at play. It was actually the social-democratic metalworkers union FIOM (affiliated to the 2 million member social democratic union federation CGL) whose members organized the factory takeovers in many places in northern Italy, including in the critically important locales of Milan and Turin where the occupations led to armed battles with the state over the course of the "Red Biennium" 1919-1920. This is contrary to the claims by Wetzel that the occupations were led by the syndicalist USI.

Wetzel's citation of USI membership claims is another historical sleight of hand, meant to impute strike leadership to the USI, when in fact the syndicalist federation drew its heaviest membership among agricultural and construction workers. While FIOM and the Italian Socialist Party eventually played a disorganizing role during the Biennio Rosso, the point is that if significant numbers of those working-class militants had been inside FIOM, history could have played out very differently.

In the U.S., the IWW did lead strikes in wartime industries where there wasn't real competition with the AFL, but by 1920, the focus of IWW organizing shifted to the agricultural Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. So it was not a part of the massive strikes of the postwar period by the railroad shopmen (400,000 workers on strike), the coal miners (425,000 workers on strike), the national steel strike (350,000) or the packinghouse workers strike (50,000) or even the Seattle general strike, which was called by the AFL's central labor council. Thousands of other strikes were called by AFL locals in too many cities to count across the U.S., in one of the largest strike waves in world history.

The IWW's abstention from the AFL in this period was indeed a real separation from the mass movement. As William Z. Foster pondered at the time, what if those thousands of radicals who had been in the IWW had instead focused their forces for years before on building the capacity for these mass strikes and developing mass industrial unions? 1919 was one of those years of mass, revolutionary struggle that come along so rarely, and the IWW missed the boat.

The basic arguments made by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism, and which have been the foundation of Communist trade union strategy in the ensuing 90 years, is based on a simple premise: that it is impossible to make a socialist revolution without the organized workers in basic industry, and that it is impossible to politically defeat the pro-capitalist leaders of these unions from outside these organizations. The impressive (but probably inflated) membership figures of the myriad syndicalist unions cited by Wetzel do nothing to refute this fact.

This fact was perfectly well understood by the internationalist French syndicalists like Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte, who during the First World War organized their co-thinkers into the Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees to oppose the pro-war position of the leadership of the main French trade union federation. They did this not by splitting the unions, but by fighting within them against the pro-war bureaucracy: a perspective they took with them into the French Communist Party after the founding of the Comintern.

IT'S ALSO worth taking a moment to respond to the historical claim that the IWW actually grew in size and influence throughout the post-war period. This assertion is traceable to a single source on the IWW (former IWW leader Fred Thompson) and is in all likelihood a fabrication that has been repeated so many times in different sources that it is now taken for truth.

No significant organizational figures are cited in Thompson's history for the years between 1920 and the disastrous schism in the IWW in 1924. Melvyn Dubofsky's history, while it contains some serious flaws, nevertheless cites IWW convention documents to write:

The IWW's finances and membership tumbled downhill in the 1920s; by 1924, Secretary-Treasurer Tom Doyle, speaking for a leadership that laid claim to an almost invisible membership, reported an absolutely bankrupt treasury. During the period 1920-1924, the number of affiliated unions and delegates in attendance at annual IWW conventions declined steadily. Even at the crucial 1924 convention, which decided the IWW's future, only nine unions and 26 delegates were seated.

No organization, anarchist, syndicalist or otherwise, has so far been able to withstand the full repressive force of the U.S. federal government. To expect a radical union federation to thrive in a situation where nearly all of its notable leaders were arrested and imprisoned, deported or even killed through vigilante or state violence, where its national and regional headquarters were seized, raided and destroyed, and where all of its assets were taken isn't realistic.

Plus, when the repression of the Palmer Raids and the Wilson administration finally ceased, nearly every notable IWW figure went over to the U.S. Communist movement: from Big Bill Haywood to Lucy Parsons and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

But even if it were the case that the IWW grew stronger during the postwar period, the point from Left Wing Communism stands: the revolutionary dual-unionist strategy of the IWW put it squarely outside of the postwar radicalization. The same was true for many of the syndicalist movements that Darlington covers in his splendid history.
Joe Richard, New York City, and Ty Carroll, Chicago

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