What is syndicalism?

Syndicalism is the belief that workers should run their own workplaces some that they may be administered effectively and democratically.  Through this workplace control, exercised nationally via labour unions, workers could wield democratic control over the whole economy.  Labour unions are key to this idea as they have the potential to organise and socialise large numbers of workers together, on the basis of fighting for their collective interests and to increase their collective power in the workplace.

But as syndicalists would be the first to admit that the labour unions of today are not up to the lofty task of winning democratic control over the economy.  Consequently syndicalists propose numerous ideas for building unions to the point where they can take power in workplaces.

Syndicalism as a form of socialism has always emphasised the importance of the “economic” that is the bread and butter workplace demands of pay and conditions, over the “political”, the battles of ideologies and party politics.  This is because we observe the politics can be a hugely destructive force and tying a labour union to a particular political creed is likely to lead to the exclusion of those who are not adherents of said creed.

That said clearly socialism is a “political” concept, but ultimately this political conclusion flows naturally from the strengthening of unions and workers being exposed through struggle to the class nature of society and their own collective power.

Syndicalism is also associated with militant action, with syndicalists playing key roles in major strikes, for example during the great unrest period before the first world war.  However, syndicalists willingness to use militancy to gain results is not an aesthetic preference, militancy for militancy sake can be destructive, it is important to apply militancy only when it is the best strategy to win.

Another key concept often associated with syndicalism is industrial unionism, though it is worth noting that historically there have been some syndicalists who have rejected industrial unionism.

Industrial unionism is where unions structure themselves around the supply chains of industries.  For example this might mean that retail workers in a shop would be in the same union as the workers in the distribution centre and the farmers growing the food.  This means that when the retail workers strike they are more likely to incur solidarity from their fellow union members elsewhere in the supply chain and so stand a much greater chance in being able to shut the entire proccess down and render scabs useless.

In contrast to this approach stands the tradition of craft unionism, where workers are broken up not on the basis of their industry but on what trade or craft that worker practices.  This approach has proved hugely damaging, frequently pitting “skilled” against “unskilled” workers in battles for relative privilege rather than uniting workers in a way that renders them powerful.

This divisive form of unionism is still in evidence today with the most prominent example in the UK being the education sector.  In a typical university there will be at least four different unions, one for the janitors, one for the cleaners, one for the technicians and one for the lecturers (who couldn’t possibly let the smelly little plebs into their union).  This concretely weakens the power of even the more privileged lecturers as should they strike they cannot count on the janitors to strike with them, a move which would force most buildings on a campus to close completely.

Clearly, ideas like industrial unionism and syndicalism are as relevant today as in the heyday 100 years ago.  In order to understand how we can best apply syndicalist ideas today, we ought to look at how syndicalist have fared historically, this will be the subject of my next post.

This post was originally part of an educational presentation entitled “Syndicalism then & now” I made for Liberty & Solidarity, I intend to post a couple of other posts adapted from other portions of this presentation on the history of syndicalism internationally and what a new, up-to-date form of syndicalism might look like.


Strength in the union

Unionists from the CNT during the Spanish civil war

Unions have forever been a socialists friend, often at the centre of exciting periods of revolutionary activity such as Red Clydeside or the Spanish revolution.  However today’s unions seem a far cry from the revolutionary militancy of yesteryear and so it is worth asking the question, why should socialists and radicals today care about unions?

One reason to care is numbers.  At 6.5 million members the trade union movement is the largest organised body of the working class in existence.  What’s more the trade unions constituency incorporates nearly the entirety of our class, as being a worker is an experience, unlike going to university for example, which almost all of us will share.  Now clearly size alone wont cut, after all the largest political party is the labour party and most of the socialist left is to be found (quite rightly) outside of it, but the sheer capacity of the unions must be acknowledged.

This capacity is at its greatest when trade unions mobilise their members collectively to improve their lot.  Such a mass experience of collective action, and hopefully a collective victory can not only serve as the basis for further strengthening the organisation and power of our class but also carries within it the seeds of our new society.

If or future society is to be a collective, socialistic one, it should follow that bringing it about must also be a collective effort.  Were socialism to be installed by coup or some other individualistic, minority-based strategy then you would expect to find any new collective structures swiftly being corrupted or abandoned as has been borne out by various historical examples.  This is partly because people are creatures of habit, and are not very good at going outside their comfort zones.   If people have not been socialised into collective ways of working, if they have not experienced for themselves the possible pitfalls such as corruption and how best to deal with them, then it would seem that any collective experiment is doomed to failure.  Consequently it would seem that the processes of attaining socialism must in itself be collective and socialistic, building the new world in the shell of the old.

Trade unions can serve to facilitate this collectivism but they can also play an important role in the building process.  A revolutionary change in society, especially one involving massive numbers of people is difficult to pull off.  It needs organisation and the self-confidence of all those involved.  Through building up organisational size and capacity through small victories, increasing the confidence of the members and the reputation of the union bit by bit we have the potential to create powerful fighting machines, just like the unions of yesteryear.

Sadly as we all know unions are presently ill-suited to this task.  Density is in decline and the sort of union activity that builds confidence and wins victories is seemingly rare.  What’s more large sections of the population, especially young casualised workers have never had any experience of trade unionism.  Clearly these workers need to be organised, need to be part of our collective solution to the problems of capitalism, and so the question is then, how is this best achieved?

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn addresses striking IWW silk workers

Ultimately this is a tactical decision.  Some, such as the IWW, advocate setting up new radical labour unions and this approach has met with a limited degree of success, for example organising Starbucks workers.  Other socialists, noting the huge capacity of the existing movement, feel its better to intervene within those unions that exist and argue for them to extend unionisation to those whom it is presently unavailable.

There are arguments for either approach, what is clear is that one way or another collective action and organisation must be extended to the entirety of the working class.  This is why as a socialist I have been drawn towards syndicalism, with its focus on the potential of labour unions as transformative agents in society.  But whichever socialist creed you adhere to we should acknowledge that unions, though frequently inadequate and inaccessible, have the potential to play a huge role in changing society for the better.

Some ideas for union renewal

In order to create a better world we, the working class, need power.  Such power can only come through collective organisation around the one thing that unites all members of our class – work.  But trade unions, the bodies with which we socialists attempt to create such collective organisation, are in decline.  If we are serious about building trade unions and winning them to socialist ideas then we need to come to the table with ideas of how to reverse this downward trend.

The traditional left wing approach has often been to argue for greater militancy, an approach which has been discussed elsewhere on this blog.  However there are other less obvious but perhaps even more important possibilities for trade union renewal.

Recruit or organise?

One of the obvious places to look for ideas for union renewal is the few success cases of today.  One of the few unions that has grown substantially in the past 10 years is the American behemoth the SEIU.  over the past decade it has succeeded in nearly doubling its membership to a staggering 2.1 million.  This has been in spite of the incredibly hostile conditions of industrial relations within the USA.

So how did the SEIU achieve this against-the-odds success? It looked to the Australian movement the organising methodology it had adopted to raise its own membership figures, the organising model.  Now both the left and the trade union movement in the UK like to talk about organising.  For the trade unions “organising” often simply means recruitment, handing out union membership forms, whilst for the far left “organising” only really seems to translate as party or front building.

The organisng model on the other hand sets up organising as an approach that is rather different to traditional union “servicing” and recruitment.   The approach of this model is to map workplaces and conduct surveys to find out what issues the workers there are most concerned about.  An issue is then selected and a campaign run to get a victory.  Through building by starting small and working up the self confidence of the workers and the standing of the union can be steadily improved.

What’s more the organising model can be far more confrontational than the servicing/recruitment approach, with strikes (such as the successful Sodexo workers strike resulting from UNISON’s attempt to implement the model) a fairly common tactic to gain results.  With such demonstrable effectiveness and the possibility for militant outcomes you’d think the far left would be raving about this new approach, yet the far left has virtually nothing to say on this new methodology.

This is in part the fault of the far left for not taking sufficient interest in workplace issues.   Such an attitude has left as the sole champions of organising certain factions with the union bureaucracies and consequently a conservative vision and practice of organising dominates.  Whilst using militant tactics might be a great way to force reluctant employers to recognise your union and to build your membership numbers, once you’ve done a deal with that employer you don’t want pesky members messing it up by trying to win more.

In order to prevent this being the reality of organsing the left needs to engage with and learn this new model.  Of course as many lefties will point out large elements of the model aren’t new, they’re a historical rediscovery of how unions used to work.  This is only part of the picture though, old-school militancy has been complemented by modern organising techniques, making the organising model a powerful tool.

Union culture

Larkin loved a good picnic

Another incredibly useful tool is that of trade union culture. When the union is the centre-point of cultural and social activities for its members it will be rendered far stronger.  After all your much more likely to go down and support the picket line if your mate Bob, who you met through the union football tournament is one of those on strike.  The central importance of the union as a social institution was realised by Jim Larkin, who as leader of Ireland’s syndicalist union, the ITGWU, organised union picnics and other cultural activities that greatly contributed to the early successes of this new union.

Another syndicalist union, the CGT in France, used similar tactics.  Through its Bourse Du Travail localised structures the union would provide services and a social space to working class communities, building up popular support for the union and encouraging members to socialise together.  Sadly such locality based organising is more difficult today as workers in one workplace are unlikely to all live in the same locality, however in spite of this the comrades in the Comités Syndicalistes Révolutionnaires are having some success at reconstructing a local CGT presence.

Whilst on the left we often regret the demise of union clubs and the centrality of unionism in working class life we would do well to head  the old socialist adage: don’t mourn, organise!  This social infrastructure can be rebuilt, starting small and building up, but it is up to us to ensure that this happens.

If the working class is to stand a chance it must be organised thoroughly to assert its collective power.  The techniques of the organsing model and the strengthened social bonds that come through a trade union culture are two vital tools in this task.

Socialist sounds

Podcasts are to radio what BitTorrent and iPlayer are to television.  Allowing the user to select only the content that interests them, to listen to at a time of their choosing makes them infinitely more convenient than tuning in and hoping there’s something good on. Nowadays smartphones (such as my own warranty-voided custom-firmwared HTC) are capable of automatically downloading the latest podcasts without any user interaction, queuing them up ready to listen whenever they are wanted.

Whilst its this level of convenience that makes podcasts radio-killers, for socialists there is a far more interesting aspect of this new media to examine.  As with much internet-based content, the barrier to produce a podcast is far lower than producing a radio show.  There’s no licence, no studio hire,  all you need are some ideas and a half-decent microphone.  This renders podcasts a far more democratic medium than radio, allowing alternative viewpoints to come to the fore, free from domination by state or company owned media machines.

Thanks to this democracy my 30 minute bus ride to work, normally dead time, has been transformed into a productive learning experience.  I’ve listed below some of the podcasts that typically make up this experience, with mini-reviews for each in case you fancy trying one.


Out of all the podcasts I listen to, Radio Labour seems the most similar to a traditional radio format.  Uploaded 5 days a week each 10 minute episode relays some of the major trade union news stories from around the world with a traditional radio-news style delivery.  Typically the host does not venture beyond news items and into analysis or truly probing interviews, but this is understandable given the various trade union sponsorships the show has, it cant be seen as taking sides within the union movement. 

Summary: Think of it as LabourStart in podcast form.

This podcast sets as its goal the bringing together of the Free software and labour movements.  As a Linux-using shop steward its  a project I can fully get behind, unions are amongst the worst culprits when it comes to spending money on software when there are free and often superior alternatives.  Episodes of Cyberunions have so far covered a wide range of topics including open source social networking and the need to organise technology workers.  The hosts are typically very honest about their own experiences with Free software, positive and negative and coming from different sides of the world from each other means they frequently provide insights into the ways unions operate differently in different countries (the downside to this internationalism is American cohost’s pronunciation of “Diaspora” which makes me wince, the small-minded xenophobe that I am).

Summary: Accessibly presented information on Free software aimed at trade unionists

A more infrequent podcast, CLB’s offering none the less provides some hugely interesting insights into the world of trade unionism and labour struggles within China.  The hosts have a seemingly huge depth of knowledge and a very relaxed yet professional podcasting style which makes this one of the most listenable podcasts I subscribe to.  Each episode tends to tackle a different topic though the major Chinese labour news stories of the day are always covered.

Summary: Professional and informative, an excellent source of information on labour struggles in China.

And the rest

The above podcasts are entirely labour movement orientated because I generally find most political podcasts too unfocussed and moralistic for my tastes, the only ones I occasionally listen to are those put out by the WSM, specifically I would recommend this recoding of a talk on the history of Syndicalism in Ireland.  I also occasionally  find time to listen to some podcasts completely unrelated to my politics, the highlights of which have to be the professional and funny GameSpot UK podcast and the fascinating and well-researched History of Rome podacst.

Podcasts are a fantastic resource for learning or catching up on news, and the left already has some good offerings.  We can do a lot better though, and hopefully as the left slowly catches up with the technology we will see more and more quality left wing/labour movement podcasts.

General strike?

Much of the far left, most prominently the Socialist Worker’s Party, are campaigning for a general strike.  This demand often takes various form, but the principle is the same, we need a big strike, the more militant the better.  Such demands are beginning to gain traction amongst young radicalised workers and trade unionists,  and so it is worth examining whether this call for a general strike is one all socialists should be taking up.

Clearly were the unions to bring out all their membership, millions of workers, in an indefinite general strike the country could be paralysed and the austerity agenda halted in its tracks, however the reality on the ground in many trade unions makes this scenario exceedingly unlikely.

The difficulty here is tacitly acknowledged by the leaderships of the unions.  Whilst they may not be the bold and daring leadership we might like they are none the less genuinely hostile to the Tories (sometimes for ideological reasons, sometimes because their future career as an MP depends on Labour being in power).  Yet they are unwilling to take up the calls of the far left for a general strike.  This is not simply cowardice, the union leaders know that behind the often inflated membership statistics lies a sorry picture of union organisation.

Besides the already well documented ageing and decline of trade union density most trade unionists will not have been on strike in years.  A decade of “partnership” with the bosses has done its damage and even those more militant unions who occasionally strike frequently find it is a battle enough to try to get their own union membership out, let alone the workforce as a whole.  A general strike then, a decisive confrontation with the government, risks a major defeat for the trade unions, as it was in 1926.  Indeed we need look no further than Greece, where several one day general strikes, of the kind advocated by much of the far left, combined with massive civil unrest have thus far failed to stop the austerity agenda.

This attitude of trying to mimic those tactics which are seen as most militant, which appeal aesthetically to idealistic young activists, rather than a focus on the hard work needing put in in the here and now is sadly a trend much of the left is guilty of.  This focus on militancy is not simply a distraction, it can often prove quite dangerous.  If the far left wins its argument for a piece of seemingly militant action to take place, and that action fails to be effective, militancy will be discredited in the eyes of all those who participated.  Workers are not going to hurry to try another workplace occupation if the last one got half of them fired.  Yes, we should be arguing for bold tactics such as sit-ins, wildcat strikes etcetera, but only where these tactics will bring us victories.  The principle of fighting to win must take precedence at all times over a preference for aesthetically militant action.

Of course a hugely important factor when fighting to win is ensuring that whichever tactic we ultimately adopt has the support of the vast majority of those involved in the fight.  Again here the far left’s attitude of militancy for militancy’s sake can prove dangerous.  A workplace occupation will be destined for failure if we only manage to win a small proportion of the workforce to this tactic.  Consequently, when propagandising to the whole of the labour movement we need to be concious of where that movement largely is, and what sort of actions are likely to win mass support as opposed to isolating the far left in its own militant bubble.

This of course does not mean that we need be bound by lowest-common-denominator passivity. We need to move the labour movement in a generally more militant direction, but any attempt at this must begin with where the working class is currently at, and must build the foundations, the membership density, the buy-in, that make successful militant action such as a general strike possible.

A large section of this post was originally part of a larger “how can we beat the cuts” article written in conjunction with others for Liberty & Solidarity which can be read here.

Reflections on blogging

Having been blogging for around a month now I thought I’d jot down a quick post to reflect on how it’s been.  I started this blog primarily as a place to commit my thoughts to page without needing to be constrained by the more professional and impersonal nature of article writing. When writing articles I am generally far more rigorous with editing, going through several drafts and sharing them with people before publication for feedback.  Blogging by contrast feels quite liberating, being able to put metaphorical pen to paper and quickly bash out my thoughts on an issue and publish them on the same day.  Indeed some of my posts, specifically my most recent on the battle of ideas, started out life as article pieces but having neglected to take them through my usual process of review I took the opportunity to publish them anyway.

Its worth thinking about what the value of all this writing is though.  Generally when doing political activity I try to be as pragmatic as possible, doing what I feel is necessary and most useful politically rather than simply what I personally enjoy or find rewarding.  This makes blogging something of a guilty pleasure.  My blog has a tiny audience, slightly expanded by the fact I’ve been cross-posting on Anarchist Writers (somewhat cheekily, given I don’t identify as an anarchist), and doesn’t form part of a strategy to influence the thinking of the left, at whom most of my posts seem to be aimed.  In short, the time I spent blogging I feel could be better spent on other, less enjoyable things.

That noted, there are certainly some useful functions of blogging.  First and foremost this blog is a handy archive where I can stick things I’ve written for various places for easy access later.  Secondly the process of blogging is usually one of trying to express ideas and analysis I’ve been batting around in my head for a while, and attempting to form a written argument helps to show up contradictions in my thinking and to clarify in my own mind exactly what it is I do think.  On the other hand this can be a double edged sword as having committed to one viewpoint publicly I am more likely to stick to it and defend it, becoming a little more close-minded in the process.

Still, I think this blog is somewhat revealing in terms of its content, taking a look at my favourite political cartoon:

My favourite political cartoon - click to see in detail

I like this cartoon because it largely sums up my feelings about the left, there needs to be less fannying around, and more organising (I also find the inclusion of a “sky pilot” in the background inexplicably hilarious).  But my blog has pretty much entirely been fannying around, tellingly the biggest tag within my tag cloud is presently “political theory”, a subject which dominates this blog, despite my professed distaste for navel-gazing.  I hope this to be only a temporary phase, after all I have been active as a socialist far longer than I have been active within the labour movement and so naturally have accumulated more thoughts with regards to the former.  Adittionally undoubtedly part of the drive behind various posts has been wanting to sum up my feelings on particular debates I’ve been involved in, often over at the Anarchist Black Cat forums.  Sadly these debates tend to be more on questions of political theory than organising strategy and tactics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then this blog is in some ways a reflection of the debates within which I am participating, which in turn are determined by the place the movement I am within is at.  That said, having now put most of my thoughts on more abstract political theory down somewhere I now hope to move on to posts more concerned with what I believe is paramount, the labour movement, its problems, their solutions and the strategies that I believe can help build it into a movement capable of winning socialism.

Winning the battle of ideas

For socialists, how workers power can be brought about is the central question.  Most socialist groups have different answers to this question, from the large idealogical chasm of revolution versus reform as a means of changing society to smaller more nuanced issues of tactics in the here and now.  One notion that does seem to straddle the vast majority of existing socialist groups however is the view that the “battle ideas”, the idealogical struggle against capitalism, is of central importance.  This is often cited as the reason for standing in elections, to give socialist ideas a platform, and the justification for endless paper sales and leafleting.

The problem is, we seem to be losing this battle of ideas.  Capitalism is undoubtedly the dominant ideology of the working class (all be it nice fluffy Keynesian capitalism) and over the past decade, even with capitalism facing possible collapse, the socialist left has gained little in terms of support.  If we are serious about winning socialism we need to examine the reasons for these failures and find out in what way we can improve our approach.

Current approaches

Nearly every socialist organisation, from the most authoritarian Stalinists to the most liberal anarchists, has its own publication. Usually this takes the form of a “newspaper” that comes periodically and espouses the position of the group and generally advocates for their chosen ideology. These newspapers are often accompanied by less frequent and more in-depth magazines and a web presence, more or less developed depending on the organisation in question.

Such publications do their best to convince the reader of the merits of a socialist transformation, and in particular of membership of that group, their aim being to create socialists (or to “spread socialist ideas”, which amounts to the same thing). Now there are undoubtedly cases where this approach works, and most experienced paper-sellers will have a couple of anecdotes up their sleeves about this or that comrade that was recruited via the weekly paper-sale.

Such benefits shouldn’t be dismissed, however at present the socialist movement is recruiting in ones or twos, and hasn’t increased markedly the percentage of the population that believe in socialist ideas. Now we can argue that this is because of “objective circumstances”, but, in the midst of a crisis of capitalism it is difficult to imagine circumstances more favourable to socialist ideas, and yet their take up, whilst increased slightly, is still minor amongst the population as a whole.

So why is it that our ideas are failing to spread? To answer this question it is necessary to look at how our political opponents, the capitalist class, promote their own ideas.

Learning from the enemy

Firstly, when we compare our own organisations to the capitalist political parties we immediately notice that these party’s do not have their own organ. Why is this? Would “New Labour Worker” be a successful publication? Probably not as most people are very sceptical of any publication with an explicit agenda, and prefer their media to have at least nominal independence. Of course all of the bourgeoisie press has its own allegiances, and most are not blind to this, but they are none the less considered a more reputable source of information than party-political election materials.

Newspapers may be partisan, but they are still more trusted

Another characteristic of the capitalist newspaper industry is its noted recent decline. Over the last decade there has been a marked decrease in newspaper sales as technology slowly makes this media irrelevant. The newspaper industry has been slow to adapt to this change and has thus lost out, however the left press has found it even more difficult to cope with change.

Various dogmas surround the notion of the centrality of the party paper, especially on the Leninist left.  Whilst party papers undoubtedly played an important role in the Russian revolution and we should seek to learn from that experience what we can, technology has moved on and such an approach is no longer effective.  The notion of organising around a paper these days makes little sense, and usually translates into yet more dismal paper sales.  Other media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as the present day revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt have found, are far more potent tools than party-political newspapers.

From action to ideas

However, there is a more fundamental problem than the technological out-datedness and obvious partisanship of the far left press.  For most people socialism seems unattainable, utopian, “nice idea but it’ll never happen”.  Whilst we can try to mitigate against this attitude by wheeling out Marxist dogmas on the inevitability of proletarian victory, or by quoting historical examples, “but look, in 1917, in Russia, for a bit…” neither approach is going to be hugely convincing to your average worker.

This perception of attainability is very important when it comes to looking at motivations.  Socialism does not appear to be in the immediate self-interest, because it appears to be unattainable, of working class people.  As it stands its difficult to argue that doing a miserable paper sale once every weekend at the local shopping centre will tangibly benefit the working class, and so surprise surprise few are drawn in by this sort of activity.

So a central project for us as socialists must be to make socialism, the empowerment of the working class, as attainable as possible.  To do this, we must look to empower working people, creating powerful demonstrations in their own lives that the working class can and should run society.  Such power does not have to come all at once, more naturally it can be built.  Every time an industrial union successfully stops a management attack on the workers, it is demonstrating its power over the workplace.  Every time the workers win a demand, even a small one, they have taken a little control over their workplace away from their boss.

Of course, winning a new coffee machine or stopping a pay cut is still a long way from attaining true socialism, but such victories can help us build the confidence of those involved in winning them and enable us to demonstrate to yet more workers the effectiveness of our popular organisations.  The more organised the working class is, though trade unions, community associations or any other mass organisation, the better able to assert itself it will be, and the more power it will wield.

Eventually, when unions become strong, the question ceases to be “who runs this workplace” and begins to be “who runs this country”.  Worker’s power has been made attainable and it is then that we will find the working classes responsive to our idealogical propaganda and can push for total control over society.  The terrain will be such that the battle of ideas can be decisively won.

But in the mean time, our focus should not be on trying to preach our socialist gospel to a largely uninterested working class, but rather we should focus our efforts on preparing the battlefield, building and democratising the popular organisations of our class.  With our limited resources this may mean tough choices, moving finance away from propaganda activities and towards the work we do within mass organisations, but ultimately this strategic realignment will render us better able to win the battle of ideas in the long term.