It started in France
The Confédération générale du travail, formed in 1895 in France, is widely regarded as the grandfather of the syndicalist movement. Within its ranks socialists alienated by party politics, radical republicans and anarchists joined forces to forge a new movement; revolutionary syndicalism. In a short space of time syndicalist ideas came to dominate the CGT, at the time the only sizeable union in France.
This dominance was reflected by the Charte d’Amiens, a declaration of syndicalist principles adopted by the confederation in 1906. It asserted the political independence of the CGT from all parties:
as far as it concerns individuals, the Congress asserts the complete freedom for union member to participate — outside of his corporate grouping — in those forms of struggle that correspond to his philosophical or political concepts, limiting itself to asking him in exchange to not introduce into the union the opinions he professes outside it.
Around this time the CGT was at the centre of the campaign for the eight hour day in France. This campaign provoked much industrial unrest and triggered the spectacle of a “socialist” parliamentarian (and erstwhile proponent of the general strike!) ordering troops to fire on strikers. The CGT used tactics pioneered in the early days by leaders such as Émile Pouget who advocated the use of sabotage to aid strikes and stop scabs.
The true strength of the CGT however lay not in such tactics but in the solid basis it had within working class communities. This strength flowed from organs known as the Bourse du Travail which brought together unionists in a given town to provide services for the working people which the state did not. This encouraged workers to socialise together around the union and rendered it a powerful social institution.
The syndicalist’s dominance of the CGT ended with the beginning of world war one. The anarchist Leon Jouhaux and his supporters on the union’s executive lined the union up with the French state in the infamous union sacrée. Syndicalists throughout the CGT attempted to reverse the betrayal, opposing it on the executive and attempting to call a congress to deal with the matter, however they were outmanoeuvred.
After the war and in the wake of the Russian revolution the syndicalists attempted to regain hegemony within the CGT. They formed the Comités syndicalistes révolutionnaires and by the end of 1921 had succeeded in winning almost half of the CGT back to revolutionary syndicalism. It was at this point however that pressure both from those wanting to join the communist Profintern and the anarchists combined to force a split, the revolutionary syndicalists forming the Confédération générale du travail unitaire.
Eventually in 1936 the CGTU and CGT merged, however by this time syndicalist influence had waned, replaced largely by the stalinism of the Parti communiste français. After further splintering of the trade union movement later in the century, the CGT is still to this day the largest union in France. On paper it is still committed to the Charte d’Amiens and a refounded Comités syndicalistes révolutionnaires works within its ranks to once again win it to revolutionary syndicalism.
Syndicalism spreads to Britain
In the UK the syndicalist movement was kick started in 1910 by veteran trade unionist and socialist Tom Mann, who had visited France and was impressed by the model of the CGT. Much like the revolutionaries in France he adopted the approach of working within the existing unions, forming the Industrial Syndicalist Education League to propagandise for syndicalism.
During this time Mann lead the successful 1911 Liverpool transport strike. After the strike he was imprisoned for having published a leaflet during the course of the strike urging troops not to fire on strikers. This imprisonment brought him and the fledgling ISEL great attention and the ISEL’s newspaper The Syndicalist reached a circulation of 20,000.
A broader syndicalist movement out with the ISEL also flourished after Mann’s imprisonment. In 1912 the Miner’s next step, a pamphlet arguing that the miners must go beyond nationalisation and argue for workers control of their workplaces appeared in the coalfields of south wales. The Daily Herald, a distant ancestor of todays Sun was also founded in 1912, the paper was hugely sympathetic to the syndicalists and its readers groups up and down the country became hives of syndicalist debate and practice.
Sadly in spite of this strong movement the ISEL came to a premature end in the 1913-14, when the organisation was seized by “dual unionists” who favoured splitting from the existing labour movement to set up new unions. Though this was the end of the UK’s primary syndicalist organisation its influence was felt in coming decades, as the syndicalist influenced Socialist Labour Party helped organise munition worker strikes during the first world war, leading to the formation of workers committees across the country and the famous “red clydeside” period.
Syndicalist inspired politics also found a home in the early british communist party, many former members of the ISELincluding Mann filling its ranks and working within its “minority movement” within the TUC unions.
Part two is available here.
This post was originally part of an educational presentation entitled “Syndicalism then & now” I made for Liberty & Solidarity,