Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism

I am, as those who read my articles regularly should be aware, an anarchist communist. I want to see a world where the workers control industry and communities manage their own resources, without the oppressive interference of the state, capital, or any other top-down structure. Perhaps less-known is the fact that I am also an anarcho-syndicalist.

The distinction can be a difficult one.

Even though their perceptions may be entirely negative based on propaganda, most people are at least vaguely familiar with the concept of anarchy and anarchism. “You want to get rid of the government, right?” However, the offshoots of that idea are obscure to those unfamiliar with anarchist politics and history.

Here, I want to discuss what anarcho-syndicalism is and, in particular, how it relates to anarchist communism.

A definition of anarcho-syndicalism

Anarcho-syndicalism is a movement which seeks to organise workers outside of the traditional trade union framework. Taking on the idea of worker self-management, its proponents argue that “revolutionary unionism” is a vital part of building towards a free society. After all, only the workers can bring about their own liberation, and only with direct action can they achieve this.

The history of anarcho-syndicalism is vibrant and bloody. The most obvious episode in it is the Spanish Revolution, during which the working class took direct control of their own lives and work from the state and capitalists. However, other incidents and actions give an idea of what the movement was about and what it meant to ordinary people at its height.

Here is Howard Zinn writing about the Seattle General Strike of 1919;

It began with 35,000 shipyard workers striking for a wage increase. They appealed for support to the Seattle Central Labor Council, which recommended a city-wide strike, and in two weeks 110 locals — mostly American Federation of Labor, only a few IWW — voted to strike. The rank and file of each striking local elected three members to a General Strike Committee, and on February 6, 1919, at 10:00 a.m., the strike began.

Unity was not easy to achieve. The IWW locals were in tension with the AFL locals. Japanese locals were admitted to the General Strike Committee but were not given a vote. Still, sixty thousand union members were out, and forty thousand other workers joined in sympathy.

Seattle workers had a radical tradition. During the war, the president of the Seattle AFL, a socialist, was imprisoned for opposing the draft, was tortured, and there were great labor rallies in the streets to protest.

The city now stopped functioning, except for activities organized by the strikers to provide essential needs. Firemen agreed to stay on the job. Laundry workers handled only hospital laundry. Vehicles authorized to move carried signs “Exempted by the General Strike Committee.” Thirty-five neighborhood milk stations were set up. Every day thirty thousand meals were prepared in large kitchens, then transported to halls all over the city and served cafeteria style, with strikers paying twenty-five cents a meal, the general public thirty-five cents. People were allowed to eat as much as they wanted of the beef stew, spaghetti, bread, and coffee.

A Labor War Veteran’s Guard was organized to keep the peace. On the blackboard at one of its headquarters was written: “The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.” During the strike, crime in the city decreased. The commander of the U.S. army detachment sent into the area told the strikers’ committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn’t seen so quiet and orderly a city. A poem printed in the Seattle Union Record (a daily newspaper put out by labor people) by someone named Anise:

what scares them most is
They are ready
They have machine guns
And soldiers,
Is uncanny. The business men
Don’t understand
That sort of weapon . . .
It is your SMILE
Their reliance
On Artillery, brother! It is the garbage wagons
That go along the street
Marked “EXEMPT
by STRIKE COMMITTEE.” It is the milk stations
That are getting better daily,
And the three hundred
WAR Veterans of Labor
Handling the crowds
For these things speak
That they do not feel
At HOME in.

The mayor swore in 2,400 special deputies, many of them students at the University of Washington. Almost a thousand sailors and marines were brought into the city by the U.S. government. The general strike ended after five days, according to the General Strike Committee because of pressure from the international officers of the various unions, as well as the difficulties of living in a shut-down city.

The strike had been peaceful. But when it was over, there were raids and arrests: on the Socialist party headquarters, on a printing plant. Thirty-nine members of the IWW were jailed as “ring-leaders of anarchy.”

There are many other such stories in the United States alone, before and through both World Wars. They tell of a movement grounded not in dusty theory but in action, which would stand up for workers and ordinary people against injustice. A movement which, despite untold beatings, arrests, massacres, and executions by the state, the army, and local militias, would neither quit nor compromise.

But where does it stand in relation to the wider anarchist movement?

Anarchism and its adjectives

Anybody familiar with the idea of anarchism will be aware that there are numerous different schools of thought within that umbrella term. Anarchist communism, anarcho-collectivism, individualist anarchism, agorism, mutualism, and anarcho-syndicalism are but a few. There are even oppositional doctrines such as anarcho-capitalism and national anarchism to consider.

Do all of these terms represent ideologies, as with the various strains of Marxism from Leninism to Tito-ism? Or do they represent factionalism, as with the “People’s Front of Judea” and its “splitters” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian?

I would argue that neither is the case. Rather, barring of course those who tie anarchism to capitalism or fascism, they represent a variety of complimentary ideas for the revolutionary reorganisation of society. For example, I myself advocate a non-capitalist free market (agorism) as a way of trading between various mutual aid communities, whether they be mutualist, communist, or collectivist.

It is from this perspective that I make the argument that anarcho-syndicalism is integral to anarchist communism, both in forging towards revolution and organising society afterwards. However, not all anarchists feel this way.

Anarchist criticism of anarcho-syndicalism

In The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism, Murray Bookchin criticised the movement as holding outdated views;

As “practical” and “realistic” as anarcho-syndicalism may seem, it represents in my view an archaic ideology rooted in a narrowly economistic notion of bourgeois interest, indeed of a sectorial interest as such. It relies on the persistence of social forces like the factory system and the traditional class consciousness of the industrial proletariat that are waning radically in the Euro-American world in an era of indefinable social relations and ever-broadening social concerns. Broader movements and issues are now on the horizon of modern society that, while they must necessarily involve workers, require a perspective that is larger than the factory, trade union, and a proletarian orientation.

The view has some initial merit. Certainly, it is not only within the workplace that ordinary people are faced with authoritarianism and illegitimate institutions that must be dismantled. However, anarchism is not – and should not be – a single homogeneous block. The struggle for a better society is fought on many fronts which, though they overlap, remain distinct. Anarchists should be involved in a wide variety of struggles, but it must be recognised that it is counter-productive to throw them all under a single banner. For example, antifascist organisation requires a quite different approach to workplace organising and, though involved in both, I know that attempting to do both simultaneously would be a disaster.

Meanwhile, the Anarchist Federation (then the Anarchist Communist Federation) published The Union Makes Us Strong? Syndicalism: A Critical Analysis in a 1997 edition of their magazine Organise! In it, despite a thorough analysis of syndicalist history and the failures of the Spanish revolution, they appear ultimately to lump anarcho-syndicalism into their arguments “against trade unionism and for working class self-organised struggle.” They cite Errico Malatesta’s point that “Syndicalism, in spite of the declarations of its most ardent partisans, contains, by the very nature of its constitution, all the elements of degeneration which have corrupted the workers” as “being a movement which proposes to defend the present interests of the workers, it must necessarily adapt itself to the living conditions of the present.”

However, as Emile Pouget points out, defending workers in the present needn’t be antagonistic to pushing for their liberation in the future;

[Anarcho-syndicalism] has a double aim: with tireless persistence, it must pursue betterment of the working class’s current conditions. But, without letting themselves become obsessed with this passing concern, the workers should take care to make possible and imminent the essential act of comprehensive emancipation: the expropriation of capital.

Noam Chomsky has made a similar point with regard to short-term goals and long-term visions;

My short-term goals are to defend and even strengthen elements of state authority which, though illegitimate in fundamental ways, are critically necessary right now to impede efforts to “roll back” the progress that has been achieved in extending democracy and human rights. State authority is now under severe attack in the more democratic societies, but not because it conflicts with the libertarian vision. Rather the opposite: because it offers (weak) protection to some aspects of that vision.

The problem of an obsession with reform in the present, as within the mainstream trade union movement, is countermanded by an equal obsession with revolution in the far-flung future. One key strength of anarcho-syndicalism is that it not only recognises the ultimate goal of anarchism, but that it does so without disregarding the struggles and grievances of ordinary people here in the present.

Complimentary approaches and voluntary federation

In Rudolph Rocker’s words, anarcho-syndicalism is “based on the principles of Federalism, on free combination from below upwards, putting the right of self-determination of every member above everything else and recognising only the organic agreement of all on the basis of like interests and common convictions.” These same principles govern the wider anarchist movement – free association and voluntary federation.

We can see this in practice in local communities today. Different activist groups such as Antifa, No Borders, Smash EDO, Anarchist Black Cross, the Anarchist Federation, and the anarcho-syndicalist Solidarity Federation consider each other comrades, share members, and work together when the occasion demands it. And yet they remain separate, autonomous groups. Anarchism is not plagued by the factionalism that has riven Marxism, for example, and there is a healthy culture wherein we can dissent and debate without yelling “splitters” at one another. However, there is always a risk that movements will tend that way as they grow, and some of the “critiques” on offer from one strand to another can resemble the pointless navel-gazing of tiny, sectarian, and largely redundant Communist parties.

We should have the disagreements and the debates. They are vital for maintaining the open and directly-democratic nature of anarchism. But it is also important to remain conscious of the fact that our ultimate goal is the same, and that holding to one school of thought needn’t mean utterly discounting another. That is why I am an anarchist communist and an anarcho-syndicalist.

4 Responses to “Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism”
  1. Durruti says:

    Good stuff. It’s good that anarchists work together from time to time, but I’d like to see much more co-operation between the different UK groups and the emergence of a more visible libertarian working-class movement.

    Btw, quite a good article in the last DA entitled: Why Anarcho-Syndicalism Remains Relevant Today

  2. josephkay76 says:

    good post. too often anarcho-syndicalism is lumped in with trade/reformist unionism and ‘apolitical’ syndicalism, when its purpose is precisely to go beyond the limits of such forms. I mean most anarcho-syndicalists would probably agree with the AF’s critique of syndicalism, that’s why they’re anarcho-syndicalists!

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