Syndicalism was a radical current in the labor movement, mainly in the early 20th century. Major syndicalist organizations included the General Confederation of Labor in France, the National Confederation of Labor in Spain, the Italian Syndicalist Union, the Free Workers' Union of Germany, and the Argentine Regional Workers' Federation. The Industrial Workers of the World, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, and the Canadian One Big Union, though they did not regard themselves as syndicalists, are considered by most historians to belong to the current. A number of syndicalist organizations were, and still are to this day, linked in the International Workers' Association.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 Emergence
- 3 Principles and activities
- 4 Heyday
- 5 Decline
- 6 Legacy
- 7 See also
- 8 Footnotes
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The term syndicalism has French origins. In French, a syndicat is a trade union, usually a local union. The corresponding words in Spanish and Portuguese, sindicato, and Italian, sindacato, are similar. By extension, the French syndicalisme refers to trade unionism in general. The concept syndicalisme révolutionnaire or revolutionary syndicalism emerged in French socialist journals in 1903 and the French General Confederation of Labor (Confédération générale du travail in French, CGT) came to use the term to describe its brand of unionism. Revolutionary syndicalism, or more commonly syndicalism with the revolutionary implied, was then adapted to a number of languages by unionists following the French model. This transplantation of the term into languages in which the etymological link to unionism was lost, was frequently criticized. Critics of syndicalism in Northern and Central Europe seized upon this to characterize it as something non-native, even dangerous. When the Free Association of German Trade Unions (Freie Vereinigung deutscher Gewerkschaften in German, FVdG) endorsed syndicalism in 1908, it did not at first use the term for fear of using "foreign names".
Syndicalism is used by some interchangeably with anarcho-syndicalism, reflecting the influence anarchists had at various times in some syndicalist organizations, particularly in France, Spain, and Italy. Ralph Darlington, however, suggests that anarcho-syndicalism be used specifically to refer to "syndicalist ideas and activity infused with a heavy dose of anarchist colouration." This term was first used in 1907, by socialists criticizing the political neutrality of the CGT, although it was rarely used until the early 1920s when communists used it disparagingly. Only from 1922 was it used by self-avowed anarcho-syndicalists.
Many scholars, including Darlington, Marcel van der Linden, and Wayne Thorpe, apply the term syndicalism to a number of organizations or currents within the labor movement that did not identify as syndicalist. They apply the label to one big unionists or industrial unionists in North America and Australia, Larkinists in Ireland, and groups that identify as revolutionary industrialists, revolutionary unionists, anarcho-syndicalists, or as a council movement. This includes the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States, for example, which claimed its industrial unionism was "a higher type of revolutionary labor organization that that proposed by the syndicalists". Van der Linden and Thorpe use syndicalism to refer to "all revolutionary, direct-actionist organizatons". Darlington proposes that syndicalism be defined as "revolutionary trade unionism". He adds that this definition does not encompass communist or socialist unions, because the syndicalist conception "differed from both socialist and communist counterparts in viewing the decisive agency of the revolutionary transformation of society to be unions, as opposed to political parties or the state and of a collectivized worker-managed socio-economic order to be run by unions, as opposed to political parties or the state." Finally, Darlington argues, as does van der Linden, that it is justified to group together organizations like the French CGT, the Spanish National Confederation of Labor (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo in Spanish, CNT), the IWW, and the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) because their similar modes of action or practice outweigh their ideological differences.
Others, like Larry Peterson and Erik Olssen, disagree with this broad definition. According to Olssen, this understanding has a "tendency to blur the distinctions between industrial unionism, syndicalism, and revolutionary socialism". Peterson gives a much more restrictive definition of syndicalism based on five criteria:
- a preference for federalism over centralism,
- opposition to political parties,
- seeing the general strike as the supreme revolutionary weapon,
- favoring the replacement of the state by "a federal, economic organization of society",
- and seeing unions as the basic building blocks of a post-capitalist society.
This definition excludes the IWW and the Canadian One Big Union (OBU). Peterson proposes the broader category revolutionary industrial unionism to encompass syndicalism, groups like the IWW and the OBU, and others. The defining commonality between these groups is that they sought to unite all workers in a general organization.
The French CGT was the first self-avowed syndicalist organization. It was the model and inspiration for syndicalist groups throughout Europe and the world.
Syndicalism spread from France. CGT activists presented the Charter of Amiens and syndicalism as a higher form of anarchism at the International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam in 1907. Discussions at the Congress led to the formation of the international syndicalist journal Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste. Syndicalist movements and organizations in a number of countries were established by activists who had spent time in France. Ervin Szabó visited Paris in 1904 and then established a Syndicalist Propaganda Group in his native Hungary in 1910. Several of the founders of the Spanish CNT had visited France. Alceste de Ambris and Armando Borghi, both leaders in Italy's USI, were in Paris for a few months from 1910 to 1911. French influence also spread through publications. Emile Pouget's pamphlets could be read in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, German, and Swedish translations. Journals and newspapers in a number of countries advocated French syndicalism. For example, L’Action directe, a journal mainly for miners in Charleroi, Belgium, urged its readers to follow "the example of our confederated friends of France". Soon, organizations in the CGT's mold were formed or previously extant unions adopted syndicalist principles and methods. By 1914, there were syndicalist national labor confederations in Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy, and France, while Belgian syndicalists were in the process of forming one. There were also groups advocating syndicalism in Russia, Japan, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, and Great Britain.
In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World were formed in the United States. Although Wobblies insisted their union was a distinctly American form of labor organization and not an import of European syndicalism, the IWW was syndicalist in the broader sense of the word. According to Melvyn Dubofsky and most other IWW historians, the IWW's industrial unionism was the specifically American form of syndicalism. This form of unionism spread to other parts of the world. In 1907, Australia's Socialist Labor Party began establishing IWW clubs in that country.  In 1910, syndicalists in South Africa gained control of a union and renamed it IWW. The Wobblies also established a presence in Canada, several European cities, and Latin America, primarily Chile.
Principles and activities
Role of ideology
Syndicalism was not informed by theory or a systematically elaborated ideology the same way socialism was by Marxism. Émile Pouget, a CGT leader, maintained that: "What sets syndicalism apart from the various schools of socialism – and makes it superior – is its doctrinal sobriety. Inside the unions, there is little philosophising. They do better than that: they act!" Similarly, Andreu Nin of the Spanish CNT proclaimed in 1919: "I am a fanatic of action, of revolution. I believe in actions more than in remote ideologies and abstract questions." This was partly rooted in a distrust of bourgeois intellectuals and wanting to maintain workers' control over the movement. Syndicalist thinking was elaborated in pamphlets, leaflets, speeches, and articles and in the movement's own newspapers such as the IWW's Industrial Worker, the Italian L'Internazionale, or the British Industrial Syndicalist Education League's (ISEL) Industrial Syndicalist. This writing consisted mainly in calls to action and discussions of tactics in class struggle. Syndicalists did not, however, disavow education. Working class education was important at least to committed activists. Classes were organized in the French bourses du travail, in IWW halls in the United States, and by the Plebs League and Labour Colleges in Britain. Nevertheless, the extent to which syndicalist positions reflected merely the views of leaders and to what extent those views positions were shared by syndicalist organizations' rank-and-file is not entirely clear.
Critique of capitalism and the state
Bill Haywood, a leading figure in the IWW, defined the union's purpose at its founding congress in 1905 as "the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism". Syndicalists held that society was divided into two great classes, the working class and the bourgeoisie. Their interests being irreconcilable, they must be in a constant state of class struggle. Tom Mann, a British syndicalist, declared that "the object of the unions is to wage the Class War". This war, according to syndicalist doctrine, was aimed not just at gaining concessions such as higher wages or a shorter working day, but at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Syndicalists agreed with Karl Marx's characterization of the state as the "executive committee of the ruling class". They held that a society's economic order determined its political order and concluded that the former could not be overthrown by changes to the latter. Nevertheless, a number of leading syndicalist figures worked in political parties and some ran for elected office. Jim Larkin, the leader of the Irish ITGWU, was active in the Labour Party, Haywood in the Socialist Party of America. Yet, they saw the economic sphere as the primary arena for revolutionary struggle, while involvement in politics could at best be an "echo" of industrial struggle. They were skeptical of parliamentary politics. According to Father Thomas Hagerty, a Catholic priest and IWW leader, "dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and to my thinking it will never achieve it". Syndicalist trade unions declared their political neutrality and autonomy from political parties. Political parties, syndicalists reasoned, grouped people according to their political views, uniting members of different classes. Unions, on the other, hand were to be purely working class organizations, uniting the entire class, and could therefore not be divided on political grounds. The French syndicalist Pouget explained: "The CGT embraces – outside of all the schools of politics – all workers cognisant of the struggle to be waged for the elimination of wage-slavery and the employer class." In practice, however, this neutrality was more ambiguous. The CGT, for example, worked with the Socialist Party in the struggle against the Three-Year Law extending conscription. During the Spanish Civil War the CNT, which had declared that no one could represent it who had been a candidate for political office or had participated in political endeavors, was intimately connected with the Iberian Anarchist Federation (Federación Anarquista Ibérica in Spanish, FAI).
In the syndicalist conception, unions played a dual role. They were a organs of struggle within capitalism for better working conditions, but they were also to play a key role in the revolution to overthrow capitalism. Victor Griffuelhes expressed this at the CGT's 1906 congress in the following manner: "In its day-to-day demands, syndicalism seeks the co-ordination of workers' efforts, the increase of workers' well-being by the achievement of immediate improvements, such as the reduction of working hours, the increase of wages, etc. But this task is only one aspect of the work of syndicalism; it prepares for complete emancipation, which can be realised only by expropriating the capitalist class". For unions to fulfill this role, it was necessary that there be no bureaucrats inhibiting workers' militant zeal, "whose sole purpose in life seems to be apologising for and defending the capitalist system of exploitation", according to Larkin. Battling bureaucracy and reformism within the labor movement was a major theme for syndicalists. One expression of this was many syndicalists' rejection of collective bargaining agreements, which were thought to force labor peace upon workers and break their solidarity, though the Argentine Regional Workers' Federation (Federación Obrera Regional Argentina in Spanish, FORA) and the OBU did accept them and others began accepting them eventually. The Wobblie Vincent St. John declared: "There is but one bargain that the Industrial Workers of the World will make with the employing class – complete surrender of the means of production." Similarly, syndicalist unions did not work to build large strike funds, for fear that they would create bureaucracy separate from the rank-and-file and instill in workers the expectation that the union rather than they would wage the class struggle.
Syndicalists disagreed on how to best form the unions they envisioned. Some, like the French radicals, worked within existing unions to infuse them with their revolutionary spirit. In the United Kingdom, ISEL pursued a similar strategy Some found the existing unions in their respective national contexts entirely unsuitable and built organizations of their own, a strategy that became known as dual unionism. American syndicalists formed the IWW, though William Z. Foster later abandoned the IWW after a trip to France and worked to gain influence in the established American Federation of Labor (AFL). In Ireland, the ITGWU broke away from a more moderate, and British-based, union. In Italy and Spain, syndicalists initially worked within the established union confederations before breaking away an forming the USI and the CNT respectively. But even then, at the local level the unions within which they operated remained essentially the same. In Norway, there were both the Norwegian Trade Union Opposition (Norske Fagopposition in Norwegian, NFO), syndicalists working within the mainstream Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge in Norwegian, LO), and the Norwegian Syndicalist Federation (Norsk Syndikalistik Federation in Norwegian, NSF), an independent syndicalist organization set up by the Swedish SAC.
Syndicalists advocated direct action, including working to rule, passive resistance, sabotage, and strikes, particularly the general strike, as tactics in the class struggle, as opposed to indirect action such as parliamentary politics. The IWW engaged in around 30 mostly successful civil disobedience campaigns they deemed free speech fights. Wobblies would defy laws restricting public speeches, in order to clog up prisons and court systems as a result of hundreds of arrests, ultimately forcing public officials to rescind such laws. Sabotage ranged from slow or inefficient work to destruction of machinery and physical violence. French railway and postal workers cut telegraph and signal lines during strikes in 1909 and 1910. In Spain the CNT funded assassinations of employers to avenge killings by the state, though not all in the CNT approved and assassinations were not carried out by syndicalists anywhere outside of Spain. Syndicalists generally favored collective action.
The final step towards revolution, according to syndicalists, would be a general strike. It would be "the curtain drop on a tired old scene of several centuries, and the curtain raising on another which will offer a greater, more fertile field of human activity", according to Griffuelhes.
Syndicalists remained vague about the society they envisioned to replace capitalism, claiming that it was impossible to foresee in detail. Labor unions were seen as being the embryo of a new society in addition to being the means of struggle within the old. Syndicalists generally agreed that in a free society production would be managed by workers. The state apparatus would be replaced by the rule of workers' organizations. In such a society individuals would be liberated, both in the economic sphere but also in their private and social lives.
Gender, race, immigration
Syndicalist policies on gender issues were mixed. The CNT did not admit women as members until 1918. The CGT dismissed feminism as a bourgeois movement. Syndicalists were mostly indifferent to the question of women's suffrage. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an IWW organizer, insisted that women "find their power at the point of production where they work", rather than at the ballot box.
Before World War I
There was no international syndicalist organization prior to World War I. The CGT was affiliated with the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers (ISNTUC), which brought together reformist socialist unions. Both the Dutch NAS and the British ISEL attempted to remedy the lack of a syndicalist counterpart to ISNTUC in 1913, simultaneously publishing calls for an international syndicalist congress in 1913. The CGT rejected the invitation. Its leaders feared that leaving ISNTUC, which it intended to revolutionize from within, would split the CGT and harm working class unity. The IWW also did not participate, as it considered itself an international in its own right. The First International Syndicalist Congress was held in London from September 27 to October 2. It was attended by 38 delegates from 65 organizations in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Cuba, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The CGT's absence led the New Statesman to liken the Congress to "to playing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark". Discussions were contentious and did not lead to the founding of a syndicalist international. Delegates did agree on a declaration of principles describing syndicalism's core tenets. They also decided to launch an International Syndicalist Information Bureau and to hold another congress in Amsterdam. This congress did not take place due to the outbreak of World War I.
World War I
Syndicalists had long opposed nationalism and militarism. Haywood held that "it is better to be a traitor to your country than to your class". French syndicalists viewed the Army as the primary defender of the capitalist order. In 1901, the CGT published a manual for soldiers encouraging desertion. Similarly, in 1911 British syndicalists distributed an "Open Letter to British Soldiers" imploring them not to shoot on striking workers, but to join the working class's struggle against capial. Patriotism, syndicalists argued, was a means of integrating workers into capitalist society by distracting them from their true class interest. In 1908, the CGT's congress invoked the slogan of the First International, proclaiming that the "workers have no fatherland".
When World War I broke out in July 1914, socialist parties and trade unions in all European countries–both neutral and belligerent–, except Italy, Serbia, and Russia, supported their respective nations' war efforts or national defense, despite previous pledges to do the opposite. Socialists agreed to put aside class conflict and vote for war credits. This collaboration between the socialist movement and the state was known as the union sacrée in France, the Burgfrieden in Germany, and godsvrede in the Netherlands. Moreover, a number of anarchists led by Peter Kropotkin issued the Manifesto of the Sixteen, supporting the Allied cause in the war. Most syndicalists, however, remained true to their internationalist and anti-militarist principles by opposing the war and their respective nation's participation in it.
The majority of the French CGT and a sizable minority in the Italian USI did not. The CGT had long had a moderate, reformist wing, which gained the upper hand once war began. As a result, according to historians like Darlington or van der Linden and Thorpe, the CGT was no longer a revolutionary syndicalist organization after the start of World War I. It followed the French president's call for national unity by agreeing to a no-strike pledge and to resolving labor disputes through arbitration and by actively participating in the French war effort. Most of the union's members of military age were conscripted without resistance and its ranks shrank from 350,000 in 1913 to 49,000 dues-paying members in 1915. CGT leaders defended this course by arguing that France's war against Germany was a war between democracy and republicanism on the one side and barbaric militarism on the other. Italy did not initially participate in World War I when it broke out. The war was deeply unpopular in the country. Italian socialists in the Italian Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labor had opposed the nation's conquest of Libya in 1911 and so, too, they opposed Italian intervention in the Great War. In June 1914, the shooting of three anti-war protesters sparked a series of riots, demonstrations, strikes and local uprisings that become known as the Red Week. Once Italy, became a participant, the socialists took a more neutral position, refusing to support the war effort, but also refraining from working against it. From the start of the war, even before Italy did so, a minority within USI, led by the most famous Italian syndicalist Alceste De Ambris, called on the Italian state to take the Allies' side. The pro-war syndicalists gave several reasons. They saw Italian participation in the war as the completion of nationhood, the last step of Risorgimento. They also felt compelled to oppose the socialists' neutrality and therefore support the war. Finally, they gave similar arguments as the French, warning of the dangers posed by the "suffocating imperialism of Germany", and felt obliged to follow the CGT's lead.
USI's pro-war wing had the support of less than a third of the organization's members and it was forced out in September 1914. Its anarchist wing, led by Armando Borghi, was firmly opposed to the war, deeming it incompatible with workers' internationalism and predicting that it would only serve elites and governments. Its opposition was met with government repression and Borghi and others were interned by the end of the war. The anti-war faction in the CGT, on the other hand, was a small minority. It was led by the likes of Pierre Monatte and Alphonse Merrheim. They would link up with anti-war socialists from around Europe at the 1915 Zimmerwald conference. They faced considerable difficulties putting up meaningful resistance against the war. The government called up militants to the Army, including Monatte. He considered refusing the order and being summarily executed, but decided this would be futile. Syndicalist organizations in other countries nearly unanimously opposed the war. "Let Germany win, let France win, it is all the same to the workers," José Negre of the CNT in neutral Spain declared. The CNT insisted that syndicalists could support neither side in an imperialist conflict. A wave of pro-British sentiment swept Ireland during the war, although the ITGWU and the rest of the Irish labor movement opposed it, and half of the ITGWU's membership enlisted in the British military. The ITGWU had also been significantly weakened in 1913 in the Dublin Lockout. After Jim Larkin left Ireland in 1914, James Connolly took over leadership of the union. Because of the organization's weakness, Connolly allied it along with its paramilitary force, the Irish Citizen Army, with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Together, they instigated the Easter Rising, seeking to weaken the British Empire and hoping that the insurrection would spread throughout Europe. The uprising was quickly quelled by the British army and Connolly was executed. In Germany, the small FVdG opposed the socialists' Burgfrieden and Germany's involvement in the war, challenging the claim that the country was waging a defensive war. Its journals were suppressed and a number of its members were arrested.
Post-war turmoil and Russian Revolution
Syndicalists initially greeted the Russian Revolution.
The International Workers' Association, formed in 1922, is an international syndicalist federation of various labour unions from different countries. At its peak, it represented millions of workers and competed directly for the hearts and minds of the working class with social democratic unions and parties.
From the early 1920s, syndicalist movements in most countries began to decline. This decline was the result of a number of factors. In Russia, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, syndicalist movements were suppressed by authoritarian governments. The IWW in the United States and the Mexican House of the World Worker (Casa del Obrero Mundial in Spanish, COM) were weakened considerably by state repression. Syndicalist movements that were not suppressed also declined. According to van der Linden and Thorpe, this was the result of the "rise of the welfare state and the conditions of the long-term integration of labour in advanced capitalist economies". Faced with this decline, syndicalist organizations had three choices: They could stay true to their revolutionary principles and be marginalized. They could give up those principles in order to adapt to new conditions. Finally, they could disband or merge into non-syndicalist organizations. The IWW is an example of the first case. The French CGT, which according to van der Linden and Thorpe was no longer syndicalist after 1914, went the second route. The Swedish SAC initially chose the first option, but as an increasing number of workers left to join the mainstream unions, it changed course and became increasingly reformist. For example, in the 1930s unemployment funds were set up in Sweden, managed by unions but with significant contributions from the state. The SAC initially refused to participate, but the ensuing loss in membership forced the SAC to give in. SAC membership then started to slowly rise.
Georges Sorel, a prominent revolutionary syndicalist of the era, played a role in shaping the views of Benito Mussolini and by extension the wider Italian fascist movement. In March 1921, Sorel wrote that Mussolini was "a man no less extraordinary than Lenin". After Sorel's death in 1922, Agostino Lanzillo, a one-time syndicalist leader who had become a fascist, wrote in the Italian fascist review Gerarchia, which was edited by Mussolini: "Perhaps fascism may have the good fortune to fulfill a mission that is the implicit aspiration of the whole oeuvre of the master of syndicalism: to tear away the proletariat from the domination of the Socialist party, to reconstitute it on the basis of spiritual liberty, and to animate it with the breath of creative violence. This would be the true revolution that would mold the forms of the Italy of tomorrow".
Spanish Civil War
The anarcho-syndicalist revolution during the Spanish Civil War resulted in the widespread implementation of anarchist and more broadly socialist organisational principles throughout various portions of the country for two to three years, primarily Catalonia, Aragon, Andalusia and parts of the Levante. Much of Spain's economy was put under worker control—in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%.
The CNT's eventual defeat and World War II led to the formerly prominent theory being repressed as the three nations where it had the most power were now under fascist control. Support for syndicalism never fully recovered to the height it enjoyed in the early 20th century.
- Council communism
- Georges Sorel
- Guild socialism
- Industrial democracy
- International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam (1907)
- National syndicalism
- Occupation of factories
- Soviet (council)
- Syndicalist Party
- Worker co-operative
- Workplace democracy
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1922 Encyclopædia Britannica article Syndicalism.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Syndicalism.|
- The Association for Union Democracy.
- Rudolf Rocker. A major proponent of anarcho-syndicalism.
- General Strikes. Maps with locations where strikes have occurred; includes resource links.
- Small history of the UGT in Catalonia. Workers at the Center of Mataró and the 1888 Congress of the C/Talleres de Barcelona was born the UGT under the socialist ideals of people like Pablo Iglesias, Reoyo Toribio, Salvador Ferrer and many others in the problems that the workers had of that century.
- Syndicalism's lessons. Socialist Worker. April 22, 2015.