What is anarcho-syndicalism?

It has been my intention, for some time, to write a series of articles exploring various issues and ideas within anarcho-syndicalism.

This is not a purely academic exercise. I am a member of the Solidarity Federation (SolFed) – the British section of the International Workers’ Association (IWA) – and its Liverpool local. Now, anarcho-syndicalism is distinctly a minority tendency within the labour movement, and I want to see it become dominant.

I don’t believe that, otherwise, workers can effectively organise and fight back against the bosses either to defend our interests in the present or to push for the reorganisation of industry (and society) in the future.

But, if anarcho-syndicalism is (as I believe) the best hope of the working class, what exactly is it?

Very basically, it is a form of anarchism which sees class as the main cause of the ills in our society. It favours the self-organisation of the working class in the workplace and in communities as the best way of building towards a society where everyone is free and equal, with worker control of industry and community control of resources. It is, as I have argued in a previous post, a class-struggle route towards anarchist communism.

“Only the workers can bring about their own liberation, and only with direct action can they achieve this.”

A much more thorough overview of the basics of anarcho-syndicalism is provided in the FAQ written by Brighton SolFed;

What’s anarcho-syndicalism then?

Anarcho-syndicalism is a tendency within the wider workers movement that organises the class-struggle from the bottom up, asserting our interests through direct action, until we’re able to overturn capitalism. We reject ’socialist’ workers’ parties that aim to take state power – history has shown that this approach will lead to brutal dictatorship. We also reject the bureaucratic trade unions who are unable to assert workers’ interests.

Instead of representation – a union or party acting on behalf of workers – we favour self-organisation – workers acting for themselves. Applying these anarchist ideas to the workers’ movement, we want to unite those workers who believe in direct action, solidarity and rank-and-file control into a revolutionary union. By organising this way, workers learn to act for themselves, exercising their power without being led by union officials or political vanguards, calling into question the way society is organised and prefiguring the world we want to create, without bosses or rulers: libertarian communism.

Is anarcho-syndicalism all about unions then? I’m not a member of a union.

No, we think organising outside of the workplace is also important, it’s just that we have the most power in the workplace. In both the workplace and community our goal is not to recruit every worker into the union, but to organise mass meetings of all workers which decide what course of action to take. Members of an anarcho-syndicalist union would not seek to control these meetings but simply put forward their perspective and argue for our tactics and goals. A good example of this practice in action was the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist CNT in the Puerto Real shipyard disputes in the 1980s.

Why do you go on about the working class? There is no working class, we are all middle class now.

The working class has nothing to do with flat caps and overalls. Nothing to do with regional accents and poor diction. It is a condition. The condition of all those who have nothing to sell but their labour power – the so-called ‘proletarian condition’. If you work a white-collar job, read the Guardian and enjoy nothing more than Marks & Spencers organic sundried tomatoes with freshly-baked foccaccia bread then you may be an insufferable liberal bore, but you’re still a worker. The middle class is a cultural condition, the proletarian condition is a social one. When people say ‘we’re all middle class now’ they’re talking about culture and consumption habits – flatscreen TVs and organic focaccia bread. When we talk about the working class we are taking about the proletarian condition, the fact that those of us who don’t own a business or a significant property or share portfolio have no choice but to work for a wage, claim benefits or turn to crime in order to survive.

Why should I worry – as long as I’m fine, it’s alright. In fact I’ve got enough to worry about, with kids, mortgage, etc.

Sounds like you do have things to worry about! As an individual you can do certain things, like trying to get a good job, try to get your kids in a decent school, get a capable GP etc. But what you can’t do as an individual is to change things. It’s only when we organise collectively can we achieve social change. If your boss decides to sack a lot of workers and make you work harder to make up; or if the council decide to make your kids’ school into an academy; or the government decides to privatise the NHS bit by bit – as an individual you can do nothing to stop these, but if we organise together we can fight for the things we need.

Capitalism creates wealth – I don’t want to have a living standard like in North Korea, or Amazonian tribes.

Wealth is created by us workers, and we don’t need bosses or the state to do so. Capitalism just gets in the way really – much of the work we are forced do is socially completely useless, but even worse, under capitalism part of the wealth we create is taken away from us as profits. As libertarian communists we want to create a society where we have the same or higher living standards, but where we all have the power to decide how the wealth is created and used.

The way we see it, North Korea is a special form of capitalism, where the state is the only capitalist and the ruling elite profits from the wealth created by North Korean workers. To make things worse they have brutal dictatorship. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what we mean by communism!

Amazonian tribes have a much better form of society than North Korea: no bosses, no cops, no prisons, they spend a couple of hours in the day hunting or growing crops then enjoy the rest of the day with their kids, or taking hallucinogenic drugs – that’s primitive communism. But you’re right, their standard of life isn’t to everybody’s taste. The internet and iPods are great, and it’s nice to be able to take medication when we get ill rather than die of diarrhea or the flu like Amazonian tribespeople.

Anarcho-syndicalism is not about returning to some primitive communism, but making many the benefits of modern society available to all without bosses, landlords and bureaucrats on our backs – libertarian communism.

Revolution is violent. I don’t want my existence and the people I love to be destroyed in civil war.

None of us want civil war. The more well-supported a revolution is, the less violent it tends to be. The most successful revolutions in history have all been marked by significant mutinies with the armed forces and sometimes the police refusing to fight or even joining the revolution, and such anti-militarist agitation has long been a part of anarcho-syndicalism. The importance of wide and deep support for revolution is why we organise now for something that can seem so far away. The anarcho-syndicalist revolution in Spain in 1936 followed 70 years of organisation by anarchists and other working class militants.

We also fight to assert our needs because it’s the only way to defend our collective living standards, but we don’t kid ourselves the ruling class will concede without a fight. When picket lines are attacked by the police or bosses’ thugs, we think it is only right that workers should defend themselves appropriately. Likewise in a revolutionary situation, we think workers should defend occupied workplaces and the homes they have seized from landlords and speculators.

We should also not forget how violent the status quo is. Capitalism can only exist because the organised violence of the state that protects and extends it. The most obvious examples are the constant, pointless wars around the world where rulers send the ruled to kill one other. The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the latest example, not to mention the bloody, intractable central African wars which have claimed millions of lives. But you also have to consider the millions of preventable deaths from poverty, hunger and disease, as well as the daily low-level violence of being bossed around at work or suffering the enforced poverty of unemployment.

Aren’t anarchists against organisation?

Not the sensible ones! If you want to get things done, a group can be more than the sum of its parts. If you want to to organise as equals whilst avoiding informal hierarchies based on charisma, knowledge and experience then you need formal organisation. In fact, if you’re willing to follow orders you don’t need to be organised, but anarchism – organising as equals without hierarchy – is organisation.

What is the black and red flag all about?

The flag originated in the 1930s in Spain where members of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (our Spanish sister-section in the International Workers’ Association – IWA) combined the red flag of the workers’ movement with the black flag of anarchism, mirroring the application of anarchist politics to the workers’ movement represented by anarcho-syndicalism. After it was made famous by the CNT in the Spanish Revolution of 1936, all sorts of other anarchists also adopted the flag but those are its origins.

What is written above suffices as a basic overview anarcho-syndicalism. It serves as an ample introduction for those unfamiliar with the idea and for those who simply wish to sate their curiosity and move on.

But if you really want to know what anarcho-syndicalism is, there is much more to it than that. It is not simply an idea expounded in articles and on websites. It is a rich, lived tradition, built of workers who have organised, fought, and died in an attempt to improve their lot and that of their fellows. It is not a theory based upon observations of the world, it is a philosophy born of action, including often brutal struggle.

I believe that this philosophy represents the best way forward for the working class. If we ever want to see a world organised without hierarchy, based upon the principle of “form each according to his abilities, to each according to his need,” then it will be through anarcho-syndicalist organisation and struggle.

But what does that entail?

That is what I will be exploring across several posts in the next few months. It is easy to talk about a theory, entirely in the abstract. It is more difficult to explore the practicalities of an idea you are pursuing in the present and how you reconcile the differences between short-term needs and long-term goals. Especially if you are not compiling a blueprint or a manual for somebody else, but mainly for your own benefit.

That’s what I’m doing. I am just as capable of veering off into the hypothetical and the abstract as much as anybody, but ultimately it serves no purpose. When I ask “what is anarcho-syndicalism,” it is not an academic exercise but a thought process that goes hand-in-hand with practical action.

I write this series not as a philosopher, a theorist, or a thinker, but as an activist.

But if you really want to know what anarcho-syndicalism is, there is much more to it than that. It is not simply an idea expounded in articles and on websites. It is a rich, lived tradition, built of workers who have organised, fought, and died in an attempt to improve their lot and that of their fellows. It is not a theory based upon observations of the world, it is a philosophy borne of action, including often brutal struggle
9 Responses to “What is anarcho-syndicalism?”
  1. Brian says:

    “if the council decide to make your kids’ school into an academy” I’m an american and so i don’t know what this means, could you possibly explain it?

    Also, some Rudolf Rocker for anyone wanting to do some further reading on the subject: http://www.anarchosyndicalism.net/rocker/asindex.htm

    • Phil Dickens says:

      Oh, yeah, I guess that would be a bit confusing. For clarification – the academies scheme is where the government lets private buyers purchase a school, with help from a grant, and opt-out of local council control. Among other things, it’s led to a rise in creationist schools in the UK.

      • Brian says:

        Thanks for the explanation, the terms used across the pond can be confusing to us americans sometimes, for example I believe the term public school means something very different in Britain. I think we have something similar to the academy concept with charter schools but I’m not sure how close they are.

      • Ben says:

        The same thing is happening in the US as well, just a different name is all.

  2. Anarcho says:

    I should note that the red-and-black flag was being used by anarchists in the 1870s, although the diagonal black-and-red one does date from the CNT in the 1930s


    Both Proudhon and Bakunin talked about the red flag, which Kropotkin preferred:


    but all this is by-the-way…

  3. yan tree says:

    here is the beginning of a painting I did on the ‘red & black’ flag – don’t know if the resolution will show ok. this shows just the black side & text…I have done the ‘red’ side & its still not finished as I’m planning on doing the text in black & red corresponding(in contrast) to the background colour.

  4. yan tree says:

    here’s a link to the more complete – but not yet finished, design. btw the foot in t’other one is my daughter Becca’s 3 year old one. dunno if she’ll be an anarchist like her daddy…but she likes the song ‘my daddy was a bankrobber’ so thats a good start!
    or this might work?

  5. Tristan says:

    I wish I’d come across that exposition of the working class sooner – it had to be drummed into me by experience.

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