Sunday, 11 October 2009

Book Review: Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism

From LSHG Newsletter, No. 33, (Autumn, 2008).

Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism
Ralph Darlington
338 pp
Ashgate 2008
ISBN 978-0754636175

“Syndicalism has taken the place of the old-fashioned Marxism. The angry youth, with bad complexion, frowning brow and weedy frame is now always a Syndicalist.”[Beatrice Webb, 1913.]

“Syndicalist” has long functioned as a code-word in the discourse of the far left. It is a label attached to someone who is active on the picket-line, but refuses to buy the paper offered to her; more generally someone who favours trade-union militancy, but wants to keep clear of “politics”. Ralph Darlington’s new book should get rid of such stereotypes once and for all. It is an ambitious and thoroughly documented account of syndicalism in the decades up to 1914, and its subsequent fate in the period after the Russian Revolution. It covers six countries – Britain, Ireland, USA, France, Spain and Italy – and considers both national specificities and common characteristics.
Ralph begins with the vital point that for the syndicalists social change had to come from below. In that they resembled the Bolsheviks, but differed from Stalinists, social democrats and the syndicalists’ often elitist cousins the anarchists. Hence their constant involvement in mass struggles. One example among very many is the role of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the Lawrence Massachusetts textile workers strike of 1912. Although the 23,000 strikers were divided into at least fourteen different language groups, the IWW organised mass pickets, daily demonstrations of up to ten thousand workers … and they won. In the 1911 Liverpool transport strike led by Tom Mann the strike committee controlled the city’s transport and issued permits for the movement of essential supplies. But beyond the issues at stake in particular strikes, the syndicalists saw struggle as what the French CGT militants called “revolutionary gymnastics”, a preparation for more generalised class confrontations ahead.
Although syndicalism is generally associated with the general strike, it also mobilised the imagination and creativity of workers in developing new forms of struggle, including the many forms of disruptive tactics that can be listed under the heading “sabotage”. Thus Parisian barbers, demanding shorter hours, declared that “any client who had the audacity to keep workers beyond eight o’clock in the evening ‘would be scalped’.”
Ralph traces the economic and social circumstances which produced syndicalism. As he shows, the principles of syndicalism flowed out of the lived experience of workers, discovering the need for solidarity from their confrontations with state violence. But he also stresses the role of ideas and leadership, citing EP Thompson’s observation: “Nothing in history happens spontaneously, nothing worthwhile is achieved without expense of intellect and spirit.” While the “agitator theory” overstates the role of outside elements in disputes, there is an equal danger of underestimating the role of conscious leadership. Syndicalism was not just militancy, it was also an extensive body of ideas. (However, Ralph gives short shrift to Georges Sorel – often seen falsely as the “theoretician” of syndicalism, though dismissed by Lenin as a “notorious muddler’.)
Certainly syndicalism seemed to pose a real threat to the existing order, hence the vicious repression against syndicalist organisations in France, the USA and elsewhere. At the end of the First World War state repression in the form of arrests, jailings and deportations effectively broke the IWW. Another of the strengths of syndicalism was the way it was able to reach out to unskilled workers. In the USA the IWW grew rapidly because of the AFL’s unwillingness to organise the unskilled. In France the CGT, originally based on skilled craftsmen, drew in thousands of unskilled workers. But while he undermines the simplistic characterisations of syndicalism, Ralph’s account is far from uncritical. He analyses some of the basic weaknesses of the syndicalist tradition with regard to such questions as the state, the revolutionary party and the understanding of bureaucracy. The standard criticism of the syndicalists is that they downplayed the importance of “politics”. Here, of course, the key question is what is meant by politics. That syndicalism thrived on widespread working-class contempt for the corruption and ineffectiveness of parliamentary politics is in no way to its discredit - and there are significant parallels to be drawn with the equally widespread contempt for the electoral circus today among both anti-capitalist activists and working-class voters.
Far from being “unpolitical”, the syndicalists sought to use trade-union struggle for political ends. As Alfred Rosmer pointed out, the CGT’s Amiens Charter wasdesigned precisely to avoid the division between politics and economics enshrined in the relationship between the Labour Party and the TUC. The CGT in France had a proud record of antimilitarism, in particular the organisation of the sou du soldat – a special fund to maintain contact with conscripted workers and distribute anti-militarist propaganda. It would have been interesting if Ralph had said rather more about this. And when war broke out in 1914 it was the group around Rosmer
and Monatte who were the most intransigent opponents of the war.
The latter part of the book is devoted to the relations between the syndicalist movement and the Communist International in the period after the Russian Revolution. Here it becomes clear that Bolshevism was not a monolithic bloc – and that Lenin and Trotsky were far ahead of most of their comrades. The likes of Zinoviev (in Rosmer’s words the “supreme demagogue”) continued with their abstract and mechanical denunciations of syndicalism, while Lenin and Trotsky did their best to draw the syndicalists into the orbit of the Comintern and to minimise the political differences.
Ralph deals in some detail with the establishment of the Red International of Labour Unions, which was designed to provide an organisational means of drawing the syndicalists into the orbit of the Comintern. He draws on the important work of Reiner Tosstorff, whose monumental Profintern [2004] still awaits translation into English. In the end Ralph comes down on the side of Cliff and Gluckstein, who in their Marxism and Trade Union Struggle[1986] argued that the whole notion of the RILU was “fundamentally wrong”. My own feeling is that the RILU (like Respect) was a gamble worth taking in a difficult and complex period. If it ultimately produced few results this was because of the general downturn in struggle following the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, and it is doubtful if any alternative strategy would have been more successful.
Ralph, then, deserves our thanks for reassessing a historical phenomenon which Marxists have often failed to take sufficiently seriously. Hopefully this book will be widely read and a cheap paperback edition will be produced.
One final observation. Ralph is a distinguished labour historian; many will know his splendid account of the strikes of 1972 in Glorious Summer [with Dave Lyddon 2001] and his biography of JT Murphy [1998]. But he has also been a professional socialist activist and journalist (he was once my district organiser, and I still receive communications from him with a slight sense of apprehension that I am about to be sent to sell papers in the rain at 5.00 a.m.). He knows the division between politics and trade unionism not as an abstraction, but as something to be grappled with concretely in day-to-day activity. This book confirms my prejudice that the best histories of the socialist movement are written by those who know that movement from inside, and not by those who spend their lives in the archives.
Ian Birchall

Bookmarks bookshop have a special offer whereby you can get the book for only £35. Ralph Darlington
will be speaking on his book at Bookmarks on Thursday 13 November. For more details, contact: Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE
Phone: 020 7637 1848

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