A brief history of Syndicalism (part 2)

Meanwhile, stateside

Whilst never explicitly syndicalist the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905 in Chicago, clearly had a lot in common with their syndicalist comrades elsewhere around the globe.   The primary instigator in this new union was the Western Federation of Miners, a highly militant industrial union. The WFM sought an alliance with various socialist organisations and smaller unions to create a national union body outside of the craft-focussed American Federation of Labour.  The AFL represented craft-unionism par excellence, its member bodies being forcibly split along craft lines on pain of expulsion.

In contrast to this divisive stance the IWW not only advocated industrial unionism but that there should be one union for the whole of the working class.  After all, they all ultimately had the same interests.  Somewhat optimistically the IWW saw itself as the basis for this One Big Union and this positioning often lead to an antagonistic relationship with the far larger AFL.

In spite of its isolation from the mainstream of the labour movement the IWW mounted many inspiring organising campaigns, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the Lawrence textile strike.  Over 20,000 workers walked out on strike and chose the IWW as their union.  The strike was ultimately won and elevated the IWW to the status of household name.

Sadly, in spite of its new national profile, the IWW failed to consolidate its success and within a couple of years the IWW was back to a token presence in Lawrence.  This pattern was seemingly replicated across many IWW organising drives, with the organisation continually struggling to maintain a stable membership, even though it managed to win many spectacular victories.

The sole exception to this trend proved to be the Marine Transport Workers union, based on the docks in Philadelphia.  This union was to prove stable and lasted for a good 10 years before a large section left the IWW as the result of a political split within the organisation.

Sadly, said split was not an isolated incidence, the IWW suffered numerous damaging splits throughout its history.  The first of these was at its second conference in 1906!  The IWW managed to grow in spite of both these splits and of brutal oppression, up until around 1923, where yet another split acted as a catalyst for a decline from which the union has never recovered.

One of the most interesting splits from the IWW was that lead by William Z Foster, who in 1912 formed the Syndicalist League of North America.  The league’s inspiration had come from the CGT in France and Foster was convinced that as in France syndicalist should work within the mainstream trade unions.  In the years after he left the IWW Foster found himself the leader of the spectacular “great steel strike”, involving over 100,000 steel workers.  Though the SLNA did not outlast the first world war Foster continued his work within the AFL through the Trade Union Education League which was associated with the newly founded Communist Party.   Sadly as happened in Britain and France the cancer of Stalinism slowly replaced syndicalism within the left of the trade union movement. The Comintern eventually forced the TUEL to split from the AFL, resulting in a swift deterioration in the organisation.

And everywhere else…

Syndicalism however wasnt confied to France, Britain and the USA.  There are plenty of other important syndicalist unions, such as the USI in Italy who’s activists were instrumental in the famous workplace occupation and factory committee movement.  The most well known syndicalist union is probably the famously anarchist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo whose millions of members fought Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war.  What many don’t know however is that the CNT for much of its life was not an anarchist union, it was a syndicalist union along the lines of the CGT or IWW.

Irish Transport and General Workers Union is another great example of the importance of building unions as social insitutions.  The ITGWU in its heyday was the most powerful union in Ireland and bought over a country estate outside Dublin for use for union picnics and other social activities.  The union’s syndicalist influence clearly derives from the likes of James Conolly who was one of its key organisers and who previously worked for the IWW in the United States.

Syndicalists today can learn a great deal from all of these unions. Whether its the importance of the union as a deeply rooted social institution or the need for membership stability there are clearly lessons to be learned.  Whilst I don’t presently feel qualified to discuss Syndiclaism outside of France, Britain and the US hopefully this small snapshot will prove useful, I intend to add to it with further national examples as I read more.

Read part one here.

This post was originally part of an educational presentation entitled “Syndicalism then & now” I made for Liberty & Solidarity.

A brief history of Syndicalism (part 1)

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.

The victorious Liverpool transport strike of 1911

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,

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.

Anarchism, the best bits

I don’t really identify as an anarchist, partly for the reasons outlined in this post and partly because I think the historical impact of Syndicalism has been more significant.  However, when writing on an anarchist forum the other day about educational proposals I was putting to Liberty & Solidarity (as its education secretary) I was challenged as to why there was a lack of anarchist content in the courses.  This got me thinking, as much as I spend a lot of time critiquing aspects of anarchism and its movement, what are the positive contributions of Anarchism?

Sadly, clarity of definition is not one of these positive aspects.  Anarchism has a very confused identity and is associated with various diverse tenancies such as individualism and insurrectionism.  As a socialist naturally the school of Anarchism I find most relevant is social anarchism, the anarchism of the Spanish Revolution and Nestor Makhno.

Anti-electoralism

One belief that social anarchism is well known for on the left is its opposition to participation in elections.  Whilst most socialists share with the anarchists a critique of democracy as it exists under capitalism, the anarchists typically have a more developed understanding.  For example, anarchists are crystal clear that lasting social change cannot come through the ballot box, and that through participating in elections socialists not only waste resources but risk legitimising a fundamentally flawed system.

Whilst socialist organisations often claim a similar viewpoint, this is frequently contradicted by their practice, throwing disproportionate resources into gaining electoral representation at the expense of other work.  Even in cases where socialists succeed at gaining representation, the compromises made to attain and retain that position often leads to corruption, moving to the right, or elected representatives having an undue influence over their respective party.  Examples of these trends can be seen across the globe such as Rifondazione Comunista senators voting in favour of continuing the Italian presence in Afghanistan or Tommy Sheridan using his power accrued as a member of parliament to turn on his own party when it refused to back him in his disastrous libel trial against a News of the World.

Boring old history

Dull

Whilst whether or not socialists should stand in elections or not is an immediate, practical consideration, social anarchists are also differentiated from other socialists by their interpretation of certain historical events.  Whilst many on the left may roll their eyes at the mention of the Russian revolution the fact remains that it was an event of huge significance. It shaped geo-politics for 75 years and continues to influence the left today.  This is why having an understanding of what happened in the early days of the Russian revolution, and crucially, what went wrong, is still important a century later.

I’m no historian, and I certainly can’t read Russian, but like many leftists I have done a fair bit of reading around the question of what transpired in Russia.  That the Bolsheviks failed to implement socialism there is no question, Lenin himself admitted as much with the introduction of the NEP.  So why did they fail?  For what I can make out, the events of October (or more accurately November) 1917 constituted a coup by a political party, not a worker’s revolution.  Now there is no doubt that this coup was popular, it would not have succeeded otherwise, but there reality of “all power to the soviets” was in fact “all power to the Bolshevik-controlled institutions”, with other arguably more democratic structures such as factory committees effectively hamstrung by the Bolsheviks.

Soon the Bolsheviks began to wield their power to shut down even soviets that would not tow the line.  Even before the outset of the civil war the Bolsheviks and their secret police were shutting down soviets that refused to return Bolshevik majorities.  This does not look a lot like worker’s democracy.

Prefiguration

So why wasn’t there a workers revolution in Russia? Obviously this is a huge and multi-faceted question, but there is an overriding theoretical explanation from the anarchist camp.  Prefiguration is the idea that the new world needs to be built in the shell of the old.  This means building organisations that mirror the society we want to see.

Anarchists don’t advocate this for idealistic moral reasons.  People are socialised into organisations and cultures, if we want to see a democratic society after the revolution individuals need to be socialised into democracies today.  More importantly, revolutions and the administering of post-revolutionary societies are complex task requiring a lot of coordination.  To pull these off we need mature organisations capable of organising and marshalling the forces of the whole of our class as well as allowing democratic expression.  This is why anarchists are frequently the advocates of structural, democratic changes to trade unions, rather than simply seeking to elect a more radical leadership.

Anarchists have a sophisticated understanding of the role of organisations

From this understanding of prefiguration many anarchists (specifically Platformists and Espicifists) have developed a sophisticated understanding of the role of political organisations with regards to the prefigurative mass organisations that we hope will make the revolution.  Upon writing my own piece on the role of political organisations I was pleased to discover that several similar pieces had already been written, for example this one by José Antonio Gutiérrez.  Unlike say Trotskyists who typically have a confused conception of the “mass party” which is seemingly to be both simultaneously 100% socialist and representative of the working class at large (which is not socialist), Platformists and Espicifists see their organisations as existing to both help build mass organisation and spread their own ideas.  They do not aspire to become “mass” organisations in the way that socialist political parties do as they understand that such organisations are not sufficiently inclusive to represent the entirety of the working class, whatever its politics may be.

Sadly, these views are only held by a small minority of those who call themselves anarchists, however these are none the less positive contributions to understanding that I am grateful to the anarchist movement for.  Like many socialists anarchists are often prone to dogma, and taking the above observations (as well as others that I find less useful) as unflinching rules of nature is certainly something that can be frequently observed amongst social anarchists.  Overall though these observations and understandings can greatly strengthen a socialist analysis.  A focus of prefigurative mass organisation as opposed to electoral activity is hugely important and should enable us to build our new world in the here and now.

A syndicalism for the 21st century

From the Dublin Lockout to the Spanish Civil War, syndicalism has made its mark on history. Though presently a far weaker force than it was in the first half of the 20th century, it has done much to aid in the strengthening of the working class across the globe.  Syndicalism of course is a broad church and as with most ideologies over a century in age has suffered its own divergences.  The most prominent of these trends alive today are anarcho-syndicalism and its closely-related but distinct cousin, revolutionary-syndicalism.  Whilst these two strands of syndicalism share much, there are important distinctions in ideas and practice that need to be drawn out so as to best learn from the histories of these two traditions.

The history of these two strategies has always been intertwined, Syndicalism being very influenced by the politics of the anarchists who were some of its most prominent adherents in the early days.  At around the turn of the 20th century a wave a syndicalist unions appeared, including the CGT in France, the ITGWU in Ireland and the IWW in the United States.  To compliment these unions, in several countries there were syndicalist advocacy groups working within the non-syndicalist unions, such as the ISEL in the UK or the SLNA in the US.  This initial manifestation of syndicalism, though often dominated by anarchist militants, remained fairly apolitical, welcoming all workers to its ranks.

Syndicalism was defined then as a militant approach to trade union action, frequently using strikes and sabotage to gain results.  Syndicalism was distinct from other forms of socialism as it de-emphasised the “political” struggle through the ballot box and building political organisations, believing instead that workers own economic organisations, the unions, were what was necessary for social change.

This de-politicised approach contrasts with the later anarcho-syndicalist organisations, grouped around the IWA, founded in 1922, which although many started life as more traditional revolutionary syndicalist unions, gradually moved more into the political sphere, labeling themselves explicitly as anarchist.  Such anarcho-syndicalists were in favour of building anarchist unions from scratch if necessary, none of the initial IWA affiliates had a strategy analogous to that of the revolutionary syndicalist advocacy groups the ISEL or SLNA which worked within the non-syndicalist unions1.

Logo of the IWA

Anarcho-syndicalism today largely mirrors the strategies of 1922, of building anarchist unions outwith the existing labour movement, however it has been considerably less successful than it was in the 20s and 30s.  Many affiliates of the IWA have grown dogmatic and puritanical, setting up their tents in the left-communist camp and dismissing all unions outside of the IWA as hopelessly reformist.  It would be unfair however to assume that these IWA supporters speak for all anarcho-syndicalists, there are still many with a more open approach to questions of strategy.

From this brief historical comparison we can surmise the main points of difference between the anarcho-syndicalists and the revolutionary syndicalists, specifically that the former present themselves and their unions as political organisations, nailing the red and black flag of anarchism to the mast, whilst the latter are less keen to throw their lot in with any one brand of socialism.  Additionally, whilst anarcho-syndicalists have always favoured a “from scratch” approach the revolutionary syndicalists have been more flexible, sometimes choosing to organise within non-syndicalist unions.

The differences defined, which of these two approaches can be most useful to us today?

If we are to be successful in bringing about a revolution, we clearly need the vast majority of the working class to back such an idea.  To this end if seems obvious that we should stick our colours to the mast and advocate anarchist unions, after all if we believe in our theories we shouldn’t be afraid of arguing for them within organisations we create.  In the modern era this approach has seen limited results however, and we may require a more subtle answer than simply planting our flag and propagandising for our ideas.

It is important to note, in attempting to discern how we might win the masses to our politics, that collective self-interest is a powerful motivating factor. This is why trade unions work, workers recognise that it is in their collective self-interest to join up and fight for a better deal for themselves.  The process of moving people towards our ideas, of building class consciousness, has to be one of ensuring that an anarchistic revolution is clearly in the self interest of the great majority of workers.

To achieve this, rather than arguing for abstract notions of what society could be like one day, we need to build the confidence and organisation of the working class, so that it is both confident enough and capable of taking power from the state.  This can be done through winning victories, demonstrating for all to see the power of collective organisation.  In order to win effectively we need as many workers as possible to be with us, this means socialists, social-democrats and even ideologically capitalist workers need to be included.  Flying the anarchist flag above our unions can only serve to exclude those who’s consciousness has not yet been elevated, dividing the working class into boxes based on politics rather than pulling us all together on the basis of collective self-interest.

The issue of whether we should seek to reform and build within existing, non-syndicalist labour movements is entirely related to the question of the role of politics with the unions.  Starting from scratch, or from the plethora of small historical syndicalist unions dotted around the globe, has been the perspective that not only dominates anarcho-syndicalist thinking but also much revolutionary syndicalist thinking.  The reasons for this are evident, the “mainstream” unions in most countries and undemocratic and passive, and we’ve seen the many failures and sell outs of those who have attempted to change them.

So why did the syndicalists of old advocate working within the unions? Again, the question comes down to one of trade union unity.  Whilst the density of the established unions is often low and in decline, these unions still represent millions of workers, and have vast resources that far outstrip anything that the syndicalist movement presently possesses.  In many countries these unions are the only remaining bastion of working class strength. However flawed they may be, they are the only thing slowing the descent into the race to the bottom on wages and conditions.

By attempting to build unions outwith the existing labour movement we risk undermining the only remaining bastion of working class strength, through poaching members.  Further, competition between trade unions usually means that ultimately, we all lose.  As imperfect as the existing labour movement is, it can be changed2, and by opting to instead build our own from scratch we serve to alienate ourselves from the millions of workers already unionised and the thousands of militants amongst their ranks.

That is not to say there will never be a point in building our own unions, rather, we must bear in mind the costs of doing so and adopt a tactically flexible approach.  Sometimes it will be the right thing to do and sometimes it wont. The revolutionary syndicalists knew this which is why, unlike the anarcho-syndicalists, groups favouring both approaches were welcomed amongst their ranks.

In summary, anarcho-syndicalism’s proud tradition has a lot to teach us, however, its emphasis on politics can prove devastatingly divisive, whilst the less political revolutionary syndicalism’s tactical flexibility around the existing labour movement renders it more appropriate for our present circumstances.  Clearly however both movements will continue, and whilst one syndicalism may seem more strategically valid than the other, both have great contributions to make to the international labour movement and the empowerment of our class.

I wrote this article to kick of a debate on anarcho-syndicalism between myself and a member of the Worker’s Solidarity Alliance in the USA.  I will stick up a link to his reply once he has penned it.

[1] With the sole exception of the Comité de Defense Syndicaliste in France, who’s tactics were swiftly condemned by the IWA shortly after its founding conference.

[2]There are plenty of historical examples of this, for example the reforms of the UK labour movement won by the amalgamation committees during the 1910s.