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.
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.”
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.
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.