Syndicalism: Then and Now

The period between the 1830s and the 1880s saw the working class arrive on the historical stage as a class-for-itself properly speaking. This was the era when workers began to successfully form the first political parties and trade unions; this is when the First International was founded in an attempt to unite the political and the economic struggles of the working class. On the other hand, the period between the 1890s and the 1920s, when syndicalism emerged, coincided with the transition towards the imperialist phase of capitalism. This was no accident – the increasing centralisation of capital demanded the increasing centralisation of labour. Syndicalism was inherently associated with the historical process of the centralisation of local trade unions and workers’ societies into federations on the national level. Different political currents took an active part in this in an attempt to unite workers for different ends. As such, the meaning of syndicalism is often contested and differs between national contexts. In France, where the term originates, syndicalisme refers to trade unionism in general. Here however the object of examination is the tendencies variously called revolutionary syndicalism, industrial unionism and anarcho-syndicalism. What distinguished those kinds of unions, whichever label they went under, from conventional trade unionism is that, with their emphasis on direct action and the general strike, they simultaneously appeared to pose a challenge to the growing reformism within the workers’ movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Rise of Syndicalism

Syndicalist unions arose in countries where the formation of permanent economic bodies was possible in the first place. This required both a particular composition of the working class and, at least to some degree, favourable legal conditions. For this reason syndicalism never took a real hold in places like the Russian Empire where due to state repression the existence of trade unions was only ever limited and temporary. In general, the creation of syndicalist unions was a symptom of growing working class militancy in the early 20th century, a period characterised by mass struggles (syndicalists played leading roles in events such as the 1905 Limoges porcelain strike in France, 1907 tenants’ strike in Argentina, 1909 Barcelona revolt in Spain, 1911 Liverpool transport strike in Britain, 1912 Lawrence textile strike in US, and so on). In some countries, syndicalist unions developed as the first national trade union centres; in others, due to ideological or regional factors, they developed as rivals to previously established national trade union centres.

  • In France, repressions that followed the Paris Commune of 1871 had stifled working class activity for a decade. Unions were then legalised in 1884, and the first labour-exchanges (bourses du travail) were introduced under the impulse of Gustave de Molinari, a liberal economist. These union employment offices gradually became spaces for working class agitation and, in 1892, began to unite in a Federation of Labour Exchanges (FBT). In 1895 the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) was founded, a national trade union centre which the FBT merged into in 1902. Socialists and anarchists played a prominent role in the CGT and, particularly under the influence of the latter, the 1906 Charter of Amiens declared that “outside of all political schools, the CGT groups together all workers conscious of the fight to be carried out for the disappearance of the salaried and of employers”. The CGT became the model revolutionary syndicalist union.
  • In Great Britain, the legal status of trade unions was established by the Royal Commission in 1867. The Trades Union Congress was founded in 1868, soon creating its own parliamentary committee, and from 1897 onwards developing into a national trade union centre. The short-lived Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) was formed in 1910, by members of the Social Democratic Federation inspired by the activities of the French CGT. Rather than setting up a separate trade union body, they advocated “boring from within” existing trade unions to promote syndicalist practices.
  • Following the suspension of the Anti-Socialist Laws in Germany in 1890, a General Commission of German Trade Unions was founded to coordinate the activities of the Free Trade Unions under the leadership of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). A localist current gradually split off and between 1897 and 1903 reorganised itself as the Free Association of German Trade Unions (FVdG), though it remained attached to the SPD. However, in 1907-8, following the adoption of a resolution put forward by August Bebel, members of the FVdG were expelled from the SPD (a decision opposed by Rosa Luxemburg). This resulted in an exodus from the FVdG of those who still wanted to remain in the SPD, but the organisation continued to exist and became increasingly influenced by the practices of the CGT.
  • In the USA, the legal status of trade unions was established by the Hunt case of 1842. A national trade union centre, at first still dominated by craft unions, was established in 1886 with the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), following a dispute over funds within the Knights of Labor. Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers the AFL eschewed socialism and refused to support unskilled and foreign workers, African-Americans, and women. In opposition, socialists, anarchists and trade unionists met in 1905 to form a rival organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In its constitution it adopted Marx’s declaration that “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’” The IWW tended to reject the syndicalist label, in favour of what it called industrial unionism. There were attempts to form IWW branches in other countries, mainly, but not only, anglophone.
  • In Spain, workers’ societies grew in the period between the “Glorious Revolution” of 1868 which overthrew Queen Isabella II and the Bourbon Restoration of 1874. In the 1880s, after the government began to contemplate social reforms aimed at improving the well-being of the working class, space for trade union activity was once again opened. The General Union of Workers (UGT) was founded in 1888 under the leadership of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), but its growth was mainly restricted to Madrid, Biscay and Asturias, and in 1907 the union Solidaridad Obrera was founded in Catalonia. Socialists and anarchists battled for influence within Solidaridad Obrera, the former wanting it to join the UGT but the latter succeeded when in 1910 the union was transformed into the National Confederation of Labor (CNT), a rival national trade union centre.
  • In Italy syndicalists of various hues existed inside the Socialist Party (PSI) up until 1908. Arturo Labriola countered Sorelian confusions by publishing Avanguardia Socialista which, despite its name, reflected the sizeable portion of the PSI members who were revolutionary syndicalists. They were the driving force behind the efforts to unify working class strike action in the early 1900s. But in 1905 the clash between the syndicalists’ emphasis on concerted strike action as the vehicle of revolutionary change and the social democrats’ tendency to equate nationalisation with socialisation of the means of production, came to a head when a general strike of railway workers protesting against nationalisation plans (which included a ban on strikes) was defeated at the cost of five deaths. By 1908, when Filippo Turati declared syndicalism incompatible with socialism, most syndicalists had already left the PSI. In 1912 they founded the Italian Workers’ Union (USI) as an alternative to the PSI affiliated General Confederation of Labour (CGL).
  • Foreign capital investments and waves of European immigration boosted Argentina’s economic development following the Long Depression of 1873. Workers from countries like Spain, Italy and Germany brought with them radical ideas and new ways of organising, helping the creation of the first workers’ societies. In the 1890s there were some failed attempts to create a workers’ federation by socialists around the journal El Obrero, who would soon found the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOI). Finally, in 1901 the Argentinian Workers’ Federation (FAO), the first real national trade union centre in the country, was founded through combined efforts of socialists, anarchists and trade unionists. Already in 1903 however, political tensions resulted in the split of the more moderate unions and the creation of the General Workers’ Union (UGT). A year later, the FOA changed its name to the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation (FORA) and endorsed “anarchist communism”. On the ground however, the FORA continued to work with the UGT, and a number of splits and unification efforts between the two unions took place in the following years.
  • Other noteworthy developments took place in Sweden with the Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (SAC), in Uruguay with the Uruguayan Regional Workers’ Federation (FORU), in Brazil with the Brazilian Workers’ Confederation (COB), or the Netherlands with the National Labor Secretariat (NAS).

Even though initially syndicalist unions were not necessarily seen as rival organisations to the Second International itself (whose members were often actively involved in their creation), they inadvertently came into conflict with the reformist wing of social democracy which saw syndicalism as a challenge to their gradualist methods. This hostility only created more of a hearing for anti-parliamentary and anti-political perspectives within the syndicalist movement. Anarchists, who in the previous decades had become associated with insurrectionism and individual acts of violence, were now increasingly gravitating towards syndicalism. This anarchist influence did not mean there was agreement, even on questions like the role of the union: while the Argentinian FORA notably recognised that “a union is merely an economic by-product of the capitalist system ... to preserve it after the revolution would imply preserving the capitalist system that gave rise to it” (Pacto de Solidaridad, 1904), others generally wanted unions to become future units of “production and redistribution, the basis of social reorganisation” (Charter of Amiens, 1906), to build “the new society in the shell of the old” (Preamble to the IWW Constitution, 1908), echoing Bakunin’s proposals for the First International, of an expanding international workers’ association which would eventually replace the state. The legacy of Proudhon’s mutualism – an orientation towards federalism, cooperatives and mutual credit societies – also continued to exert its influence to some degree. In this way, the syndicalist movement represented an uneasy coming together of various Marxist, Bakuninist and Proudhonist perspectives.

In 1901 an International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centres (ISNTUC) was formed, attached to the Second International. Social democratic, syndicalist and reformist perspectives clashed at its congresses. In response, in 1913 the Dutch NAS and the British ISEL attempted to organise a purely syndicalist international centre and to this end called a International Syndicalist Congress in London. Delegates from the German FVdG, the Swedish SAC, and the Italian USI, all attended the congress and so did members of the Spanish CNT and the IWW though not as official delegates. The congress established an International Syndicalist Information Bureau and adopted the bulletin of the Dutch syndicalist Christiaan Cornelissen as its own. However, the French CGT, the largest and most influential of the syndicalist unions, rejected the initiative as it refused to abandon the ISNTUC (which had an international membership of millions, rather than thousands). With the outbreak of war, the movement splintered further.

War and Revolution

The Second International famously collapsed in the face of the First World War. Its most influential party, the SPD, voted for war credits and sided with its own state. Leading trade unionists like Carl Legien supported the war, and the ISNTUC disintegrated. The syndicalist movement, despite its radical intentions, faced similar problems. The International Syndicalist Information Bureau was dissolved. Leading syndicalists like Cornelissen came out in support of the war, as did a minority within the Italian USI and a majority within the French CGT.

The reformist minority of the old days has become the majority. … The old leaders who invoked the thought of Bakunin and advertised the formulas of Proudhon, who adopted the conceptions of Georges Sorel or of Kropotkin, speak today in the dialect of Gompers.

Boris Souvarine, The French Syndicalist Movement, 1920

However, if within the Second International there were parties which refused to abandon revolutionary perspectives, parties which when faced with imperialist war reasserted their internationalist credentials rather than cast them aside – like the Russian Bolsheviks, Bulgarian Tesnyaki, the Serbian and the Polish Social Democrats – there were also many internationalist voices among the syndicalists. In particular, the German FVdG and a minority within the CGT opposed the war, as did the Spanish CNT and Argentinian FORA (though their governments remained neutral in the conflict). Individual syndicalists, such as Alexander Schapiro, co-signed the 1915 International Anarchist Manifesto on the War. Syndicalists opposed to the war organised congresses in Spain (El Ferrol, April 1915) and Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, October 1915), while the French CGT minority also attended the Zimmerwald Conference (which, for the first time, managed to bring together representatives from not only neutral but also belligerent countries). However, Alphonse Merrheim, one of the CGT delegates and a signatory of the Charter of Amiens, took a pacifist stance at the time and criticised the revolutionary internationalists around Lenin and Karl Radek, who argued for turning the imperialist war into class war. It would take the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 to further breach the gulf that separated the revolutionary wing of social democracy and the more internationalist syndicalists.

In the Russian Revolution trade unions played a relatively insignificant role. Instead, it was the factory committees and especially the workers’ councils, or soviets, discovered by the working class in 1905, which took centre stage. Not on the eve of a general strike, as theorised by syndicalism, but through these class-wide organs which spread across the former empire between February and October and guided by their own class party, workers brought down not only the Tsar but also the bourgeois Kerensky government and took power into their own hands. Nevertheless, the revolution found wide resonance within syndicalist circles outside of Russia, even anarchist ones, who saw in it the beginning of the end of the war and a refutation of social democracy, embracing it as their own. A militant of the Spanish CNT later recalled:

For many of us – for a majority – the Russian Bolshevik was a demi-god, the bearer of liberty and general well-being ... The splendour of the Russian conflagration blinded us ... Who, being an anarchist, disdained to call himself a Bolshevik?

Manuel Buenacasa, El movimiento obrero español, 1928

The revolutionary wave unleashed by the events in Russia unified the avant-garde of the workers’ movement around the slogan “all power to the soviets”. In Germany, the FVdG even began to call for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (Karl Roche, Was wollen die Syndikalisten?, 1919), and fought side by side with the newly formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD). But it was not until 1919 that a Communist International, which Lenin declared was needed already in 1914, finally held its founding congress. And many syndicalists joined it:

The Communist International has recruited among the syndicalist ranks – perhaps anarchist syndicalists, more likely communist syndicalists – the elements that we have always considered “the best,” and without which certain sections of the Communist International would not exist. In America, it was among the syndicalists (William Foster, Andreychin, Bill Haywood, Crosby), among the left socialists around The Liberator sympathetic to the IWW (John Reed, Max Eastman), among the anarchists (Robert Minor, Bill Chatov), that it found most of its communists. In England and Ireland, it was among the syndicalists (Tom Mann, Jim Larkin, Jack Tanner) and in the movement of the Shop Stewards’ Committees, of a syndicalist nature (Murphy, Tom Bell, etc.), that it recruited. In Spain, it was among the syndicalists and the anarchists that it found Joaquim Maurín, Arlandis, Andrés Nin, Casanellas, and many others. In France, finally, the Communist International drew from the syndicalist ranks those who, alongside the new militants who emerged from the war, should, according to the CI, exercise decisive influence, and gradually eliminate that of the social democrats inherited from the old party, of obsolete Jaurèsism and null Guesdism.

Boris Souvarine, Expelled, but Communist, 1925

In 1921, in reaction to the pre-war social democratic ISNTUC being revived as the International Federation of Trade Unions (Amsterdam International), the Communist International founded its own Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern). The Spanish CNT and the American IWW were both invited. By this point however, news was gradually spreading that within Soviet Russia not all was as it seemed. The Red Army had won the Civil War but at a great cost – working class self-activity had dissipated (and where it was still showing signs of life, it was being actively curtailed), rival political groups were repressed (including syndicalists), and instead of the soviets, the party bureaucracy was now making all the important decisions, with famine and economic ruin all around. The failure of revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Finland left Soviet Russia isolated and having to turn to capitalist countries for trade. Those anarchists who were always sceptical of Bolshevism found in these facts the ammunition they needed to reaffirm their ideas. The fact that the Profintern was to be subordinated to the Communist International was only the final nail in the coffin – the American IWW refused to join it, whereas the Spanish CNT withdrew its participation in 1922, though communist minorities remained active within the ranks of both unions.

Splits along ideological grounds were now taking place within much of the syndicalist movement. Members of the FVdG, disappointed with the KPD leadership under Paul Levi, either left to join the General Workers’ Union of Germany (AAUD) associated with the left communists of the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), or fell under the influence of the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker in what became the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD). Many workers from the compromised French CGT left to form the United General Confederation of Labor (CGTU), and although at first dominated by anarcho-syndicalists, it soon came under the influence of the French Communist Party (PCF). In this way, after the war and the Russian Revolution, the trade union movement became divided across three main international centres: the social democratic Amsterdam International, the communist Profintern, and the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association (IWA). The latter was born in 1922 when syndicalist unions like the Italian USI, Argentinian FORA, the German FAUD and (a year later) the Spanish CNT, came together, this time under an increasingly “libertarian communist” banner. Already by then however, the syndicalist movement was on the decline, due to a number of factors: the waning of the revolutionary wave, the domination of the workers’ movement by social democracy on one hand and soon Stalinism on the other, and the rise of various authoritarian regimes which attempted to crush working class organisations and integrate them into the state. Syndicalism’s last breath as a mass movement was drawn in Spain.

With the notable exception of some anglophone countries, where the IWW model was more popular, in the years 1906-1914 syndicalism was primarily influenced by the French CGT. The bankruptcy of the CGT during the war changed all that. In its absence, it was the Spanish CNT which became the leading organisation within the anarcho-syndicalist IWA. This was not immediate. In the 1920s the CNT was forced underground by the brutal repressions under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. Only in the 1930s, with the birth of the Second Spanish Republic, was the CNT able to reorganise and grow to more than a million members, becoming by far the biggest union in the IWA. Already then however it was shaken by an internal conflict between the reformism of Ángel Pestaña and the Treintistas, eventually expelled forming their own parliamentarian Syndicalist Party, and the insurrectionary anarchism of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) which led the CNT into a series of localised revolts in January 1932, January 1933 and December 1933, where each time “libertarian communism” was proclaimed only to be crushed by the intervention of the Republican state a few days later. The confusions of this period only became more pronounced with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

We have dealt with the Spanish Civil War in more detail elsewhere; here we can only summarise. While the self-managed workplaces and rural collectives demonstrated workers were able to take over production, they could not abolish money and wages in isolation (a fact which led sections of the CNT to make virtue out of necessity). These experiments were dissolved once the Republican government, which had not been smashed, inevitably moved against them. The CNT-FAI, by joining the Republican government, by politically capitulating to anti-fascism (i.e. support for the Popular Front), helped to disarm the working class at key moments. Sections of the CNT rank-and-file opposed this, as did certain voices within the IWA who denounced the “serious errors and betrayals for which [the CNT-FAI] were responsible” (Manuel Azaretto, Pendientes Resbaladizas, 1939). But ultimately, if 1914 saw the bankruptcy of the French CGT, 1936 saw the bankruptcy of the Spanish CNT. Syndicalism proved itself not immune to siding with the capitalist state. For us, this calls for a deeper analysis of the character of mass parties and trade unions in the imperialist phase of capitalism.

The Marxist Critique

There is no doubt that the actions of the socialists, syndicalists and anarchists who sided with their own capitalist states in the first half of the 20th century represented betrayals of principles on their part. However, to leave it at that would be a purely idealist interpretation. There were real material reasons which led them down that path. In the years prior to 1914, workers had managed to build their own mass parties and trade unions, but these very bodies ended up integrating themselves into the capitalist state. This internationally uneven process, which started with the introduction of the first labour laws and continued with the granting of legal status to combinations of workers, culminated in trade unions becoming part of the capitalist state’s regulatory and planning apparatus. As we have seen above, syndicalism was both a product of, and a reaction to, this.

From the 1890s onwards capitalism, thanks to its inherent tendency towards accumulation and centralisation of capital, created a world economy in which national economies now violently competed against each other. The state became increasingly involved in production and distribution, while monopolies, cartels, syndicates, and trusts proliferated. Mass parties of workers, in order to survive and retain their membership and property, adopted reformist solutions and attempted to control class struggle. In return, in times of crisis they were called upon to take seats in government. Capitalists, who had previously fought unions bitterly, now saw the possibility of using them to discipline the working class. The rise of business and state unions, which subordinated the interests of workers to the national interest, was the most pronounced expression of this. Syndicalist unions, with their emphasis on direct action and the general strike, could only for a time hold off this tendency. They were either crushed and replaced by rival national trade union centres (as happened to the American IWW after the First World War) or ended up disciplining the working class themselves (the French CGT during the First World War or the Spanish CNT during the Spanish Civil War). Following the arrival of the crisis in the 1970s, as Keynesianism was abandoned in favour of sweeping attacks on working class conditions, anti-trade union laws were also extended. This, despite making an opening for all kinds of “base” unions in new or no longer unionised industries, has not changed the fundamental role that unions play within capitalism.

Revolutionary Marxists have always been clear that: 1) revolution has to involve the conquest of political power by the working class, and 2) the role of trade unions, however radical, is to regulate the sale of labour-power, to act as mediators between labour and capital. Already in the 1860s, when unions were still illegal in most of the world, Marx made the following observations:

Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.

Marx, Value, Price and Profit, 1865

At the time, Marx thought the participation of trade unions in a political movement could help overcome these limitations. To that end, he argued for their affiliation to the First International. In this way, he hoped trade unions, which previously shunned political engagement in favour of local and immediate economic struggles, could eventually become levers in the struggle of the working class against the political power of the ruling class. Some 40 years later, a new generation of revolutionaries had to grapple with changing realities:

Trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defence of already realised gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult. Such is the general trend of things in our society. … In other words, the objective conditions of capitalist society transform the two economic functions of the trade unions [influencing the situation in the labour-power market and ameliorating the condition of the workers] into a sort of labour of Sisyphus, which is, nevertheless, indispensable. ... [However] trade unions are totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production.

Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 1900

In response to the reformist wing of social democracy, which sought a gradual transition towards socialism through the expansion of parliamentary democracy, cooperatives and trade unions, revolutionary Marxists recognised this would instead result in a gradual accommodation to capitalism. When the First World War saw mass parties and trade unions embrace Burgfriedenspolitik and the Union Sacrée, it was the organisations which could not establish a relatively comfortable existence within capitalism, which had a relatively small membership and little if any property, that actually stuck to their internationalist principles. The revolutionary wave which started in Russia ultimately failed and the Communist Left had to critically reflect on the reasons why as well as the changes now taking place within capitalism. Our political ancestors began to criticise the idea of forging mass parties altogether and no longer saw the unions as “schools of socialism”:

... in the current phase of the totalitarian domination of imperialism, the unions are an indispensable tool of this domination, to the extent that they even pursue goals that correspond to the bourgeoisie’s aims for its own preservation and war. Therefore, the party rejects the false perspective that these organisations could, in the future, fulfil a proletarian function so that the party would have to do an about turn and adopt a position of winning positions within their leadership.

Political Platform of the Internationalist Communist Party, 1952

For us in the ICT, it is the self-organisation of the struggle which today serves as the real “school of socialism”. This does not mean we completely reject union membership, which is a tactical question, but we refuse to accept any positions within the union officialdom, and, whether in or out of unions, always argue for going beyond the limiting framework of trade unionism. The era of mass parties and trade unions as tools of developing class consciousness is over.

Today, syndicalist unions, despite arguably being more geographically wide-spread than ever before, are a shadow of their former selves. The biggest ones, often with legal recognition and less emphasis on anarchism (generally using the revolutionary syndicalist or industrial unionist labels), have a few thousand members at most. Others, often with no legal recognition and more ideologically anarchist (generally using the anarcho-syndicalist label), have mainly been reduced to propaganda groups with little workplace presence. Over the years, this contradiction between accepting more workers into the union regardless of their political stance, and only accepting those workers who agree with certain anarchist principles, has resulted in many splits. Consequently, the international syndicalist movement is divided across three organisational poles: the anarcho-syndicalist IWA relaunched in 1951; a 2018 split from the IWA called the International Confederation of Labor (ICL) which refers to itself as both revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalist; the remains of the industrial unionist IWW, some of whose branches have now joined the ICL. Furthermore, the federalist nature of these groups combined with an entrenched aversion towards programmatic political approaches, means that one branch of the very same organisation may express contradictory views to other branches, even on such crucial matters as internationalism.

In response to such contradictions, some anarcho-syndicalists have attempted to re-orientate their activity away from attempts to build permanent economic bodies, to the point of even questioning the meaning of a “union”. For example, in an internal debate within the Solidarity Federation, the British section of the IWA, we find the following argument:

For us, a revolutionary union is necessarily non-permanent because it is an expression of a given wave of class struggle. It cannot outlive the struggle of which it is an expression without becoming something fundamentally different, something counter-revolutionary, precisely because anarcho-syndicalist unions are defined by militant participation, direct action, solidarity and rank-and-file control. The particular form such unions entail is mass assemblies open to all workers (minus scabs and managers), and mandated recallable delegates forming delegate councils to co-ordinate the struggle.

Strategy & Struggle, Brighton Solidarity Federation, 2009

Here, the “revolutionary union” is simply used as a synonym for strike committees, mass assemblies or workers’ councils. This perspective was ultimately repudiated within the Solidarity Federation, because, we quote, it “rejects the idea of revolutionary unions” in favour of the “Marxist idea of spontaneous working class organisation” and would make an anarcho-syndicalist group “resemble a council communist organisation.” However, these are precisely the kind of questions that syndicalists, those who have reflected on the role of trade unions over the past century and do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, should be asking themselves.

To conclude, our differences with both historical and modern day syndicalism can be summarised as follows:

  • To the degree that “direct action” is a synonym for working class self-organisation, we have no objections. However, where today it often means voluntarist activism, an attempt by political minorities to artificially transcend the actual level of class struggle, that is where we part. We also make no particular fetish of the general strike, which is but one episode of the class struggle.
  • While we recognise that self-managed workplaces may emerge in the course of the class struggle, we reject the notion that islands of self-management can be gradually built up under capitalism as a step towards communism. It remains the case that the working class cannot just seize the factory, it has to seize power in order to make way for the social and economic transformation of society.
  • The role that syndicalist unions once ascribed to themselves, that of uniting workers of different political persuasions and across different sectors into one revolutionary organisation, will have to be played by class-wide organs (strike committees, mass assemblies or workers’ councils) which arise at exceptional points of the class struggle. Today, by the “conquest of political power” we understand the process of smashing the capitalist state, and replacing its structures with such new class-wide organs, rather than unions (which are always limited by their membership and tied to the logic of mediation between labour and capital).

Finally, while we see the coming together of workers as a class-for-itself to be indispensable, it is not enough: revolutionaries need to actively work for the promotion of genuinely communist and internationalist perspectives. The political organisation, or future international, that we are trying to build has to be able to present a coherent political programme within the wider working class. Such a political organisation cannot be a government in waiting nor a replacement for the state itself (as mass parties and certain syndicalist unions saw themselves in the past); it must remain a revolutionary reference point through all the highs and lows of the class struggle.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
December 2022

Some Further Reading:

Thursday, February 23, 2023


Informative. It says; For us in the ICT, it is the self-organisation of the struggle which today serves as the real “school of socialism”. If memory serves me, I think others have written the strike is the school of socialism. Both these have an effect, a learning effect, but I would tend to think it is the party and preceding organisational form which are the school of socialism. If I had to choose between the three options, I would choose that latter option.

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.