What is anarcho-syndicalism: Not just syndicalism

The second part of a series exploring anarcho-syndicalism, its aims and principles, and the practicalities of enacting them in the real world.

In The Union Makes Us Strong? the Anarchist Communist Federation (ACF, now Anarchist Federation) offered “a critical analysis” of “syndicalism, including its anarcho variety.”

In it, they painted anarcho-syndicalists as “dismissive of the idea of creating separate anarchist organisations” as they “saw in the union the means and the end of the anarchist revolution.”

This allowed them to equate anarcho-syndicalism with the economic tendency of syndicalism. Thus, they cite the short-sightedness of the Mexican Casa del Obrero Mundial, and the mistake of CNT leaders in choosing “anti-fascist unity” over class unity, as proof that anarcho-syndicalism is as “reformist,” “collaborationist,” and narrowly “workerist” (i.e. focused on the workplace) as traditional syndicalism.

The presumption remains common amongst anarchists today. As a comrade who is in the Anarchist Federation phrased it recently, “we’re (AFed) the political, community side, and anarcho-syndicalism is about the workplace.”

This is not the case. Anarcho-syndicalism is neither a variant not a subset of syndicalism, but a distinct political and economic movement.

A brief introduction to syndicalism

Syndicalism is a purely economic tendency. The term syndicalism, in French, simply means trade unionism. However, in English it is taken to refer to a specific type of trade unionism.

A mass demonstration by members of the IWW in New York, 1914

That is, unions controlled directly by the rank-and-file members, rather than by a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy. Non-hierarchical organisation, in which branches are linked through voluntary federation, takes the place of centralised, top-down structures. And direct action is held up as the main weapon of the workers against the bosses.

The website LibCom identifies the two predominant trends as “Revolutionary Syndicalism” and “Industrial Unionism;”

Revolutionary Syndicalism has its roots in the anarchist movement, and can be traced back to the libertarian tendency in the First International Workingmens’ Association, when prominent Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that: “the future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal.” Industrial Unionism has its roots in the Marxist tradition, with the IWW’s famous 1905 ‘Preamble to the Constitution’ quoting Marx’s dictum “instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’”

Despite these different origins, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism converged on a very similar approach. The central idea is that trade unions divide workers by trade, which can (and has) end up in scabbing. In America, industrial disputes would sometimes see violent clashes between workers of different unions who would ignore each other’s requests to respect picket lines. The aim of syndicalism is to unite all workers into ‘One Big Union’ controlled by the members, from the grassroots.

This is obviously in deep contrast to the current reformist unions who are filled with layer upon layer of bureaucrats who can call off industrial action regardless of the wishes of the membership. This kind of union democracy puts control of workers’ struggles where it belongs: with the workers themselves.

Both Industrial Unionism (as per the 1905 IWW constitution) and Revolutionary Syndicalism (as per the 1906 Charter of Amiens) are non-political, aiming to build unions for all workers regardless of political persuasions. However, this doesn’t mean syndicalists are indifferent to the great social and political issues of the day. Rather syndicalists argue that only by building democratic, workers’ power at the point of production (‘industrial democracy’) that social ills can be addressed:

When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, we see no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, or large scale crime, or any of our serious social problems to continue.

Where anarcho-syndicalism diverges

Broadly, anarcho-syndicalists would agree with nearly all of what was said above. But we would also go beyond it.

In being “non-political,” the syndicalists conform almost exactly to the criticisms offered by the ACF. Seeing the problems of the world disappear “When the industry [emphasis mine] of the world is run by the workers for their own good,” is indeed “seeing in the union the means and the end of the revolution.”

By contrast, anarcho-syndicalist organisations such as the Solidarity Federation (SolFed) and the International Workers’ Association (IWA) are political as well as economic in their focus.

As the SolFed constitution states [emphasis mine];

That [libertarian communist] society can only be achieved by working class organisations based on the same principles – revolutionary unions. These are not Trades Unions only concerned with “bread and butter” issues like pay and conditions. Revolutionary unions are means for working people to organise and fight all the issues – both in the workplace and outside – which arise from our oppression. We recognise that not all oppression is economic, but can be based on gender, race, sexuality, or anything our rulers find useful. Unless we organise in this way, politicians – some claiming to be revolutionary – will be able to exploit us for their own ends.

As such, “revolutionary unionism is opposed to all hierarchies, privileges and oppressions, not simply those which are economic in origin,” and so “is the sworn enemy of all economic and social monopoly.”

The Spanish Revolution of 1936 as not purely economic, but demonstrated the full breadth of anarcho-syndicalist organising to (briefly) restructure society from the bottom up

LibCom adds that “anarcho-syndicalists don’t limit themselves to workplace activity, seeing tactics such as rent strikes and unemployed organising as means to further working class demands outside the workplace, alongside the more typically syndicalist direct action of strikes, occupations and sabotage by workers at the point of production.”

This broader stance was reflected in the Spanish revolution, which saw society reorganised not only economically but socially. According to Gaston Leval, as cited by Sam Dolgoff, anarcho-syndicalists “coordinated their efforts through free association in whole regions, created new wealth, increased production (especially in agriculture), built more schools, and bettered public services.”

They enacted “genuine grass roots functional libertarian democracy, where each individual participated directly in the revolutionary reorganization of social life.” Thus, anarcho-syndicalist organisation “replaced the war between men, ‘survival of the fittest,’ by the universal practice of mutual aid, and replaced rivalry by the principle of solidarity.”

In essence, anarcho-syndicalism is not “about the workplace,” nor merely “the economic side” of anarchism. Rather, it is the combination of the economic tactics employed by syndicalists with the radical politics of anarchism.

Why syndicalism should be anarchist

In Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism, I said that the different schools of thought in anarchism “represent a variety of complimentary ideas for the revolutionary reorganisation of society.” They are not (barring anarcho-capitalism and national anarchism) fundamentally irreconcilable doctrines, and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Does the same hold true with syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism? Although traditional syndicalism might have its limitations, doesn’t the fact that its emphasis on rank-and-file organisation make it compatible with anarchist philosophy?

This is a little trickier than reconciling anarcho-syndicalism to anarchist communism, for a number of reasons.

Organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are of the strain of syndicalism LibCom defined as “industrial unionism.” There are a lot of anarchists in the IWW because, as Hannah Kay puts it, it is “the ONLY international union in the UK which is run entirely by its rank and file and open to all workers in all sectors.” As well as “all the legal backup from being in a legal registered union” there is “no bureaucracy,” and so the union is “unable to stab you in back or sell you out.”

However the Wobblies, like all syndicalist unions, is non-political. The union states that “it is sound unionism not to express a preference for one religion or one political party or candidate over another.” These questions “must be settled by each union member according to personal conscience.”

This is clearly different to the anarcho-syndicalist approach, where all workers are involved in disputes through mass meetings and collective decision making, but recruitment to a union is on the basis of agreement with the fundamental aims and principles of the political movement. The question is whether the two approaches can be reconciled.

The answer is that they can and they can’t.

A mass picket by the anarcho-syndicalist FAU in Berlin

Anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists can work with the IWW on the basis that it offers a genuinely democratic alternative to the mainstream trade unions. Its principles of bottom-up organisation fit well with anarchist ideas, and it offers people who previously might have been unaware of it a way in to the libertarian workers’ movement.

But, at the same time, it needs to be understood that it cannot bring about an anarchist society on its own. Broader community and political activism is required for this.

As Rudolph Rocker wrote in Anarcho-Syndicalism;

Anarcho-Syndicalists pursue the same tactics in their fight against that political power which finds its expression in the state. They recognise that the modern state is just the consequence of capitalist economic monopoly, and the class divisions which this has set up in society, and merely serves the purpose of maintaining this status by every oppressive instrument of political power. But, while they are convinced that along with the system of exploitation its political protective device, the state, will also disappear, to give place to the administration of public affairs on the basis of free agreement, they do not all overlook that the efforts of the worker within the existing political order must always be directed toward defending all achieved political and social rights against every attack of reaction, constantly widening the scope of these rights wherever the opportunity for this presents itself.

For just as the worker cannot be indifferent to the economic conditions of his life in existing society, so he cannot remain indifferent to the political structure of his country. Both in the struggle for his daily bread and for every kind of propaganda looking toward his social liberation he needs political rights and liberties, and he must fight for these himself in every situation where they are denied him, and must defend them with all his strength whenever the attempt is made to wrest them from him.

That is why anarchists who are in the IWW are usually also in organisations with a specifically anarchist perspective.

By the same token, many Wobblies who are not anarchists are also in other groups. This includes “socialist” and even social-democratic/capitalist political parties. As ACF’s critique of syndicalism noted, the Wobblies in America “were for the first three years of their existence (1905-1908) riven with open political rivalry between the Socialist Party of America and the Socialist Labour Party.”

Even with its bottom-up structure, it is not unfathomable that the IWW today could also find itself dominated by a Marxist “revolutionary” party. Just as the executive of PCS, the most militant and democratic of the non-syndicalist unions in Britain, is dominated by the Socialist Party.

The key point is that you cannot have an anarcho-syndicalist movement without anarcho-syndicalist organisation. Groups such as the IWW should not be shunned, but we need to realise their limitations in relation to revolutionary goals.

Ultimately, improvements in the present and revolution in the future both require the organisation of the working class in industry and in local communities. Genuinely radical change requires a decentralised movement, built from the bottom up for our self-defence as a class. That is why syndicalism should be anarchist, and anarchism should be syndicalist.

4 Responses to “What is anarcho-syndicalism: Not just syndicalism”
  1. It’s my view that the best way to talk about this is to describe syndicalism as a tactical form of organisation rather than a movement or a form of politics. Thus, anarcho-syndicalism is syndicalism infused with explicit anarchist politics.

    I think much of the debate about syndicalism is rooted in a very different time and not reflective of where we are now. Syndicalism, for all its short-comings, was at least closer to anarchist ideas than the dominant service model of trade unionism in the UK and Ireland – where people see a union as a form of insurance and expect union staffers to do things for them. Marxists of various types dominate the more radical strands of modern trade unionism.

    Syndicalism can be a gateway to anarchism proper – cf. Jack White and (in my opinion) Constance Markievicz for evidence. Unlike the UK (or rest of the UK pre-1922), nationalism rather than Marxism became the dominant form of radical politics and, therefore, explicit syndicalist organising continued to be dominant in the trade union movement long after it had been replaced by the Marxist idea of the unions as being secondary to the party elsewhere.

    I think it’s important for anarcho-syndicalists to work to promote syndicalist ideas as a first step to bringing people over to anarchism. Syndicalist trade unionism would give people a practical idea of the way anarchist forms of organisation work, with the advantage of being within a context (trade unions) that are probably the most democratic mass institutions (though, of course, they could be a lot more democratic) and, even in the case of conservative unions like UNISON, are will to take some forms of direct action.

    Finally, you address only the dual unionism form of syndicalist organising in the context of the IWW, rather than the “boring from within” form that is actually more common in organisations like SolFed and Organise! in the UK.

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  3. Tom Wetzel says:

    I think this is a bit ahistorical. For example, in the classical revolutionary syndicalist era “politics” and “political” was used exclusively to refer to electoral politics, the politics of political parties & elections. So it’s misleading to say revolutionary unions of that era were not “political.” For example the IWW in USA was highly political, was opposed to parliamentary strategy, opposed to World War 1.

    Also, the phrase “anarcho-syndicalism” was apparently coined in Russia, in part because there were many anarcho-communists in Russia who did not support activity in mass organizations. The phrase “anarcho-syndicalism” came to be popularized by our enemies, the Communists, in the ’20s, as the tag they used for revolutionary unionists who wouldn’t support the Communist parties. The principles of the IWA said they are for “revolutionary unionism.” In English (and Scandinavian languages) this is called “syndicalism”. But in the Romance & Slavic languages “syndicalism” just means unionism.

    Your article equivocates between these two meanings of syndicalism. For example, the COM in Mexico was not founded on the basis of a revolutionary ideology. It was just an alliance of local federations of unions. There were revolutionary syndicalists within it, but they were anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists. They vehemently opposed the deal with General Alvaro Obregon in 1916, which supported the more pro-elite faction in the revolutionary army. This led to a split in the COM. The key leader who worked on the alliance with the middle class generals (Obregon et al) was Luis Morones, who later took a position in government, and became lider maximo of CROM, which went on to become a corrupt protection racket for employers. The anarcho-syndicalists in COM went on to found the CGT on explicit libertarian socialist principles.

    The quote you give for anarcho-syndicalism, from Solidarity Federation, which I agree with, is really a distinctly contemporary formulation, and actually owes a lot to the process of evolution of anarchosyndicalist politics over the years:

    “Revolutionary unions are means for working people to organise and fight all the issues – both in the workplace and outside – which arise from our oppression. We recognise that not all oppression is economic, but can be based on gender, race, sexuality, or anything our rulers find useful. Unless we organise in this way, politicians – some claiming to be revolutionary – will be able to exploit us for their own ends.”

    That quote would not be an accurate picture of anarchosyndicalist unions in the classic era. Probably the best historical example of anti-racism by revolutionary unionists in the classical period was the IWW’s attempts to bring black, Asian, Mexican, white workers into the same organization in a particularly racist era in the history of the USA. But a weakness of their practice was not addressing racism outside the workplace. But where were there revolutionary unionist organizations that did address racism outside the workplace in that era? Secondly, the bit about gender isn’t quite right either, if it is intended to be a description of revolutionary union movements from the classic era.

    It’s true that Mujeres Libres in the Spanish revolution made an historic breakthru in insisting on autonomy of a working class women’s movement & seeing the oppression of women as distinct & not reducible to the fight for class liberation. No revolutionary unionist movement previously had taken this kind of position. Moreover, Mujeres Libres was not a part of the union. And the CNT leadership refused to accept them as an equal part of the movement & it was only thru their pressure as an independent movement that revolutionary unionism in Spain was modified in that period.

    Altho it is true that revolutionary unionism needs to fight all forms of oppression, and take on struggles in all spheres of a workers life, outside the workplace as well as in, it’s not clear this is to be done by the union becoming the sole movement organization & taking on everything, rather than for example being allied with other social movement organizations in various areas of struggle. Moreover, recognizing the distinct character of non-class forms of oppression such as gender & racism, would seem to suggest support for autonomous movements that arise in those areas, if people subject to these forms of oppression see the need to create such movements.

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