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(en) NEFAC* - NEA #8 - Syndicalism: It's Strengths and Weaknesses - by Alan MacSimóin

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 8 Oct 2004 10:00:15 +0200 (CEST)

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Syndicalism is the largest organized tendency in the anarchist
movement today. It has built large workers' unions, led major
struggles, and has been the popular expression of anarchism in many
countries. To understand the anarchist-communist view of syndicalism
we have to look at its roots, its core beliefs and its record.
In the 1860s the modern socialist movement was beginning to
take shape. The International Working Mens' Association, better
known as the First International, was becoming a pole of
attraction for militant workers. As the movement grew, points of
agreement and of disagreement between the Marxists and the
Anarchists about what socialism meant and how to achieve it
were becoming clear. This led to the Marxists using less than
democratic means to expel the anarchists.

In 1871, the workers of Paris seized their city and the Paris
Commune was born. When they were finally defeated, seven
thousand Communards were dead or about to be executed. A
reign of terror against the Left swept Europe, and the anarchists
were driven underground in country after country, which did not
auger well for a rapid growth of the movement. In response to the
terror of the bosses, their shooting down of strikers, protesting
peasants and their suppression of the anarchist movement, a
minority launched an armed campaign, known as "propaganda by
deed," and killed several kings, queens, aristocrats and senior

Though very understandable, this drove a further wedge between
the bulk of the working class and the movement. Clandestine
work became the norm in many countries; mass work became
increasingly difficult. The image of the madman with a bomb
under his arm was born and the movement was making no
significant gains.

By the turn of the century many anarchists were convinced that a
new approach was needed and they called for a return to open and
public militant activity among workers. The strategy they
developed was syndicalism.

The Basic Idea

The basic ideas of syndicalism revolve around organizing all
workers into the "one big union," keeping control in the hands of
the rank-and-file, and opposing all attempts to create a
bureaucracy of unaccountable full-time officials. Unlike other
unions their belief is that the union can be used not only to win
reforms from the bosses but also to overthrow the capitalist
system. They hold that most workers are not revolutionaries
because the structure of their unions is such that it takes the
initiative away from the rank-and-file. Syndicalists' alternative is
to organize all workers into the "one big union" in preparation for
a revolutionary general strike.

They established their own international organization with the
founding of the International Workers Association in Berlin in
1922. Present at that conference were delegates from: the
Argentine Workers Regional Organization FORA (with 200,000
members), the Industrial Workers of the World in Chile (with
20,000 members), the Union for Syndicalist Propaganda in
Denmark (with 600 members), the Free Workers Union of
Germany FAUD (with 120,000 members), National Workers
Secretariat of the Netherlands with 22,500 members), the Italian
Syndicalist Union (with 500,000 members), the General
Confederation of Workers in Portugal (with 150,000 members),
the Swedish Workers Central Organization SAC (with 32,000
members), the Committee for the Defence of Revolutionary
Syndicalism in France a breakaway from the CGT (with 100,000
members), and the Federation du Battiment from Paris (with
32,000 members). The Spanish CNT was unable to send
delegates due to the fierce class struggle that was being waged in
their country under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, but they
did, however, join the following year.

During the 1920s the IWA expanded as more unions and
propaganda groups entered into dialogue with the IWA secretariat.
They were from Mexico, Uruguay, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan,
Australia, South Africa, Paraguay and North Africa. Syndicalist
unions outside the IWA also existed in many countries such as
the Brazilian Workers Regional Organization and the Industrial
Workers of the World in the USA (which soon spread to Canada,
Sweden, Australia, South Africa, and Britain1). The influence of
its methods, if not necessarily of its anarchist origins, was even
seen in Ireland where the ITGWU throughout its existence, until
it merged into SIPTU a few years ago, carried the letters OBU on
its badge. This OBU referring to the IWW slogan of One Big
Union. And let us not forget that both Connolly and Larkin were
influenced by the IWW. Connolly was an organizer for their
building workers union in New York state and Larkin delivered
the oration at Joe Hill's funeral.


The success of the Bolsheviks did great harm to the workers
movement outside Russia. Many were impressed by what was
happening in Russia and Communist Parties sprang up almost
everywhere. The Bolshevik model appeared successful and many
sought to copy it. This was before the reality of the Soviet
dictatorship became widely known.

Nevertheless the syndicalist movement still held on to most of its
support. The real danger was the rise of fascism. With the rule of
Mussolini, the Italian USI, the largest syndicalist union in the
world, was driven underground and then eventually out of
existence. The German FAUD, Portuguese CGT, Dutch NSV,
French CDSR and many more in Eastern Europe and Latin
America were not able to survive the fascism and military
dictatorships of the 1930s and ‘40s2.

It was at the same time that the Spanish revolution unfolded,
which was to represent both the highest and lowest points of
syndicalism3. More about this below.
The Polish syndicalist union with 130,000 workers, the ZZZ, was
on the verge of applying for membership of the IWA when it was
crushed by the Nazi invasion. But, as with syndicalists elsewhere,
they did not go down without a fight. The Polish ZZZ along with
the Polish Syndicalist Association took up arms against the Nazis
and in 1944 even managed to publish a paper called Syndicalista.
In 1938, despite their country being under the Salazar dictatorship
since the 1920s, the Portuguese CGT could still claim 50,000
members in their now completely illegal and underground union.
In Germany, trials for high treason were carried out against
militants of the FAUD. There were mass trials of members, many
of whom didn't survive the concentration camps.

One point worthy of mention about the Spanish CNT shows the
hypocrisy of the British government that called itself anti-fascist.
Not only were Italian anti-fascist exiles interned on the Isle of
Man but CNT members whose underground movement assisted
British airmen, Jews and anti-fascists to escape through Spain to
Britain were repaid at the end of the war when their names were
handed over to Franco's secret police.

The Rump

By the end of WWII, the European syndicalist movement and the
IWA were almost destroyed. The CNT was now an exile
organisation. In 1951 the IWA held their first post-war congress in
Toulouse. This time they were a much smaller organization than
the great movement that existed at their first congress.
Nevertheless they still represented something. Delegates attended,
though mostly representing very small organisations, from Cuba,
Argentina, Spain, Sweden, France, Italy, Germany, the
Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Britain, Bulgaria,
Portugal and a message of support was received from Uruguay.

Things were not looking good for the re-emergence of
anarcho-syndicalism. In Eastern Europe the Stalinists allowed no
free discussion, strikes or free trade unions. Certainly not
anarchist ones! In the West massive subsidies from the US and
the Catholic church went to tame unions controlled by Christian
Democrats and Social Democrats. Meanwhile Russia did the same
for their allies who controlled the French CGT, the Italian CGIL
and others. The IWA, in its weakened state couldn't compete for
influence. In the late 1950s the Swedish SAC withdrew from the
IWA. There was now not a single functioning union in its ranks.

The IWA staggered on as a collection of small propaganda groups
and exile organizations like the Spanish and Bulgarian CNT's.
Some wondered if it would live much longer. But suddenly in
1977 Franco died and his regime fell. The CNT blossomed, and
within a matter of months its membership leaped from a few
hundred activists to 150,000. Problems later developed within the
CNT and a split occurred which left us with two unions whose
combined membership today probably does not reach even
30,000,though still was significantly large.

The growth of the CNT put syndicalism back on the anarchist
agenda. The IWA now claims organisations that function at least
partly as unions (in Italy, France and Spain) and propaganda
groups in about another dozen countries. Outside the IWA are
syndicalist unions and organizations like the 16,000 strong SAC in
Sweden, the OVB in the Netherlands, the Spanish CGT, the
Solidarity-Unity-Democracy4 union in the French post office and
the CRT in Switzerland. Some are less anarchist and more
reformist than others. Say what we will about them we must
recognise that syndicalism is today the largest organised current in
the international anarchist movement. This means it is especially
important to understand them.

Some Problems

Anarchist-Communists do have criticisms of syndicalists’
politics, or more accurately lack of politics. Judging from their
own statements, methods and propaganda, the syndicalists see
the biggest problem in the structure of the existing unions rather
than in the ideas that tie workers to authoritarian, capitalist views
of the world.

Syndicalists do not create revolutionary political organizations;
they want to create industrial unions. Their strategy is apolitical,
in the sense that they argue that all that is essential to make the
revolution is for workers to seize the factories and the land. After
that it believes that the state and all the other institutions of the
ruling class will come toppling down. They do not accept that the
working class must take political power. For them all power has to
be immediately abolished on day one of the revolution. Because
the syndicalist organization is the union, it organises all workers
regardless of their politics. Historically many workers have joined,
not because they were anarchists, but because the syndicalist
union was the most militant and got the best results. Because
these tendencies always appeared to be reformist. This raises the
question of the conflict between being a trade union or a
revolutionary anarchist organization.

Syndicalists are quite correct to emphasise the centrality of
organizing workers in the workplace. Critics who reject
syndicalism on the grounds that it cannot organize those outside
the workplace are wrong. Taking the example of
anarcho-syndicalism in Spain it is clear that they could, and did,
organize throughout the entire working class, further evidenced by
the creation of the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, the
'Mujeres Libres' (Free Women), and the neighborhood


The weakness of syndicalism is rooted in its view of why workers
are tied to capitalism, and its view of what is necessary to make
the revolution. Spain in 1936/7 represented the highest point in
anarcho-syndicalist organization and achievement. Because of
their a-politicism they were unable to develop a program for
workers' power, to wage a political battle against other currents in
the workers' movement (such as reformism and Stalinism).
Indeed syndicalists seem to ignore other ideas more often than
combating them. In Spain they were unable to give a lead to the
entire class by fighting for complete workers' power.

Instead they got sucked into support for the Popular Front
government, which in turn led to their silence and complicity
when the Republican state moved against the collectives and
militias. The minority in the CNT, organized around the
‘Friends of Durruti,’ was expelled when they issued a
proclamation calling for the workers to take absolute power (i.e.
that they should refuse to share power with the bosses or the
authoritarian parties).

The CNT believed that when the workers took over the means of
production and distribution this would lead to "the liquidation of
the bourgeois state which would die of asphyxiation.” History
teaches us a different lesson. In a situation of dual power it is very
necessary to smash the state. No ruling class ever leaves the stage
of history voluntarily.

In contrast to this, the ‘Friends of Durruti’ were clear
that, and this is a quote from their programme 'Towards a Fresh
Revolution': "to beat Franco we need to crush the bourgeoisie and
its Stalinist and Socialist allies. The capitalist state must be
destroyed totally and there must be installed workers' power
depending on rank-and-file committees. Apolitical anarchism has
failed.” The political confusion of the CNT leadership was
such that they attacked the idea of the workers seizing power as
"evil" and leading to an "anarchist dictatorship.”

The syndicalist movement, organized in the International Workers
Association and outside it, still refuses to admit the CNT was
wrong to "postpone" the revolution and enter the government.
They attempt to explain away this whole episode as being due to
"exceptional circumstances" that "will not occur again.”
Because they refuse to admit that a mistake of historic proportions
was made, there is no reason to suppose that they would not
repeat it (should they get a chance).

Despite our criticisms we should recognize that the syndicalist
unions, where they still exist, are far more progressive than any
other union. Not only do they create democratic unions and create
an atmosphere where anarchist ideas are listened to with respect,
but they also organise and fight in a way that breaks down the
divisions into leaders and led, doers and watchers. On its own this
is very good, but its not good enough. The missing element is an
organization winning support for anarchist ideas and anarchist
methods, both within revolutionary unions and everywhere else
workers are brought together. That is the task of the


1 It was known as the Industrial Workers of Great Britain.
2 Some, like the Italian USI and German FAU, have been
re-founded but exist only as relatively small propaganda groups.
Sometimes they are able to take on union functions in particular
3 A good introduction to this period is Eddie Conlon's The
Spanish Civil War: Anarchism in Action.
4 In workplace elections in Spring 1994 their vote in the post
office rose from 4% to 18%, and in Telecom from 2.5% to 7.5%.


Alan MacSimóin is a founding member of the Workers Solidarity
Movement (WSM), and active in the Education Branch of
SIPTU, Ireland’s largest union.
* NEFAC = North East Federation of Anarchist Communists

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