Monday, 27 January 2020

Ralph Darlington on Revolutionary Syndicalism (2001)

Revolutionary Syndicalism: a critical reassessment
Written By: Ralph Darlington
Date: January 2001
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 11: Lent 2001  

During the first two decades of the 20th century, amidst the extraordinary international upsurge in strike action in the years leading up to and immediately after the First World War, the ideas of revolutionary syndicalism became a powerful current inside the international workers’ movement.

Amongst the largest and most famous unions influenced in whole or in part by syndicalist ideas were the CGT in France, the CNT in Spain, the USI in Italy, the IWW in America, and the ITWU in Ireland. And in Britain syndicalism, which was to have a lasting influence on the development of the labour movement, was represented within a number of bodies including the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, the Unofficial Reform Committee in the South Wales Miners’ Federation, the Plebs League/Central Labour College, the Socialist Labour Party, and the First World War engineering Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement.

Syndicalism merely the English rendering of the French word for ‘trade union’ was a movement committed to destroying capitalism through direct action and revolutionary industrial struggle. Parliamentary democracy and working for reforms through the state were rejected as dead ends, and the traditional function of trade unions struggling to better wages and working conditions through collective bargaining was regarded as inadequate.

Instead, syndicalists campaigned in favour of industrial and class-based unions that would become militant organisations dedicated to the destruction of capitalism and the state. They believed the road to the emancipation of the working class lay through an intensification of the industrial struggle, involving boycotts, sabotage, strikes and solidarity action, eventually culminating in a revolutionary general strike. They believed industrial unions should aim to take over workplaces and the utilities, which would then be subject to democratic workers’ control. In this way, the unions would have a double function as an organ of struggle under the present system and as an organ of economic and industrial administration after its overthrow.

The heyday of syndicalism was maintained for only a brief period of 20 years or so. Its existence as a powerful and influential current inside the international trade union movement effectively came to an end with the ebb of the revolutionary workers’ struggles that had shaken many European countries between 1919-20, and which was followed by employers’ and state directed counter- mobilisation and repression.

Afterwards, although it remained a force in Europe until World War II, syndicalism only survived as a pale shadow of its former self, being displaced either by social democracy (in the form of parliamentary socialism and official trade union orthodoxy) or by the new revolutionary Communist parties that pledged loyalty to Bolshevik Russia. There was only one important exception: a mass following was retained by anarcho-syndicalism during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9.

Although there is a wealth of available literature on the international syndicalist experience it suffers from two crucial limitations. First, much of it is confined to single country explorations, which although immensely informative in their own right make no attempt to draw comparisons with, or make wider generalisations about, the experience of other countries.

Second, virtually all the existing literature treats syndicalism as if it was merely of historical curiosity, whereas in fact its ideas and practices have re-emerged in recent years, albeit in somewhat revised form, within sections of the workers’ movement across the world. For example, evidence of such trends could be found within the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland between 1980-81, the Congress of South African Trade Unions in South Africa and among sections of the workers’ movement in countries such as Italy and Brazil in the 1980s, and in Russia in the 1990s.

Last November I presented a paper to the New Socialist Approaches to History seminar. This paper attempts to provide a comparative description and analysis of the international revolutionary syndicalist movement based on an extensive review of both primary sources and secondary literature.
It examines the varied forms that syndicalist ideas and organisation have assumed; the distinctive economic, social and political contexts in which syndicalist-type movements have emerged; the extent to which this form of trade union-based anti-capitalist revolt was influential; and the reasons for its subsequent demise, including the limitations of syndicalist strategy and tactics from a revolutionary Marxist viewpoint.

Moreover, there is some consideration of whether the development of a combination of underlying factors within a number of contemporary advanced capitalist societies the impact of globalisation, inadequate collective bargaining institutions, workers’ lack of faith in existing ‘official’ channels for political reform, and an increasing alienation from social democratic parties which have become increasingly pro-capitalist since the fall of the Berlin Wall may be creating conditions within which there could be further revival of syndicalist- type movements in the future.

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