Anarcho-syndicalism (20TH CENTURY)

Anarcho-syndicalism is a political philosophy and anarchist school of thought that views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as a method for workers in capitalist society to gain control of an economy and thus control influence in broader society. Syndicalists consider their economic theories a strategy for facilitating worker self-activity and as an alternative co-operative economic system with democratic values and production centered on meeting human needs.

The basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism are solidarity, direct action (action undertaken without the intervention of third parties such as politicians, bureaucrats and arbitrators) and direct democracy, or workers’ self-management. The end goal of syndicalism is to abolish the wage system, regarding it as wage slavery. Anarcho-syndicalist theory therefore generally focuses on the labour movement.Anarcho-syndicalists view the primary purpose of the state as being the defense of private property, and therefore of economic, social and political privilege, denying most of its citizens the ability to enjoy material independence and the social autonomy that springs from it.[3] Reflecting the anarchist philosophy from which it draws its primary inspiration, anarcho-syndicalism is centred on the idea that power corrupts and that any hierarchy that cannot be ethically justified must either be dismantled or replaced by decentralized egalitarian control.


In this chapter we will introduce anarcho-syndicalism as a synthesis of the anarchist politics and syndicalist methods we encountered in the previous chapter. This will be explored through the theory of Émile Pouget, the Argentine FORA (Argentine Regional  Workers’ Federation), the German FAUD (Free Workers’ Union of Germany) and the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour). While the mainstream workers’ movement is separated into political (party) and economic (trade union) wings, anarcho-syndicalism’s revolutionary unions are at the same time political and economic organisations. In countries where reformist trade unionism was not well established (such as Spain) this revolutionary current sometimes became the mainstream. Where trade unions were stronger (such as Germany), anarcho-syndicalism constituted a revolutionary alternative to the mainstream workers’ movement. This chapter will also show how this synthesis of anarchism and syndicalism has taken different forms in response to different conditions, but always rejected the division of the workers’ movement into economic and political wings, and rejected representation in favour of associations for direct action.

The emergence of anarcho-syndicalism

Anarcho-syndicalism, as a coherent idea, emerged from the actual practices of anarchists and syndicalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The ideas of anarcho-syndicalism were first developed within the French CGT. However, as we have seen, the CGT never itself embraced anarcho-syndicalism but maintained an attitude of political neutrality (in principle, if not always in practice, with both parliamentary and anti-parliamentary tendencies). Thus, in tracing the evolution of anarcho-syndicalism, Rudolf Rocker writes that within the CGT, “the revolutionary wing, which had the most energetic and active elements in organised labour on its side and had at its command, moreover, the best intellectual forces in the organisation, gave to the CGT its characteristic stamp, and it was they, exclusively, who determined the development of the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism.”81 Amongst the leading members of this tendency was Émile Pouget, the vice-secretary of the union from 1901 to 1908.

Pouget wrote a number of influential pamphlets including ‘Direct Action’ and ‘Sabotage’, as well as a fictionalised (to avoid the censors) manifesto of revolutionary anarchism entitled ‘How we shall bring about the revolution’ written in 1909 with Émile Pataud. Pouget never saw his ideas realised fully within the CGT and left the union movement after it was captured by reformists. But they were taken up enthusiastically by others elsewhere. For that reason, they are worth exploring further. In the opening passage of the pamphlet ‘Direct Action’, Pouget sets out the definition which all anarcho-syndicalism goes by:

Considering these words were penned over a century ago, we can make only minor criticisms. The emphasis on producers rather than the working class in a more general sense could be seen to treat work as the exclusive site of struggle and thus exclude the unemployed, housewives and others (although as we will see, the subsequent anarcho-syndicalist movement did make attempts, with varying success, to organise these groups too). The rise of mass media and subsequently of publicity stunts by various campaigners and activists has mystified the once self-evident clarity of direct action with images of men dressed as superheroes and imaginative lobbies of parliament. Pouget would have had no time for such nonsense, insisting that “direct action thus implies that the working class subscribes to notions of freedom and autonomy instead of genuflecting before the principle of authority.”83 For Pouget parliament and democracy were just the latest form of this principle of authority which must be overthrown, not petitioned or participated in. In ‘Sabotage’, he sets out a communist analysis of wage labour which could have been lifted from Marx (distinguishing between labour and labour power, for instance84), but couples this analysis of exploitation with that of oppression, insisting on the inseparability of such economic and political struggles and their unity through working class direct action. Pouget also deals with the criticism that fighting for concessions under capitalism is either reformist or utopian, by arguing that what is revolutionary about working class direct action is that it links the means and ends of the revolutionary union whilst waging the everyday struggle:

For Pouget, this was to culminate in the insurrectionary general strike. He held that the revolution could not be planned, but would develop organically from the overlapping partial struggles of workers. Thus the general strike would come about through a generalisation of these escalating struggles, which the revolutionary union sought to organise:

But this generalisation of the strike, if successful, would pit the workers’ hunger against the capitalists’ deep pockets. So once the strike was generalised and developed, the revolutionary union would seek to organise expropriations, where workers take over production of goods and services and self-manage them on the basis of needs. So, while up to this point, the revolutionary union had been an organising force made up of “an active minority”, it would now throw its ranks open to all, and use its federal structure as the basis for administering the newly expropriated social production. Thus, while it “had been, in the past, an organisation for fighting (…) [now] it was to be transformed into a social organism”.87 By throwing open its ranks, the revolutionary union would transform itself from a revolutionary minority of class conscious workers fighting against capitalism, into a federal structure for the self-management of the new society. As to the nature of that society, Pataud and Pouget did not see a contradiction between collectivism and communism. Rather, they saw it as inevitable that “pure communism” would only emerge in fits and starts, and since people had to eat in the meantime, something like collectivism could be employed for “luxury items” wherever scarcity meant that free distribution according to needs was not possible.88 But from the start of expropriation, necessary goods and services – food, water and so on – were to be provided free on the production of a union card (with the union now transformed from a fighting organisation to an administrative one open to all workers). Pouget’s brand of anarcho-syndicalism would prove influential on the Spanish CNT. But first, let’s look at the lesser known FORA of Argentina.

The FORA was founded in 1904 out of a merger of existing unions on an explicitly anarcho-communist basis. However, contrary to Pouget’s vision, they saw the revolutionary union as a necessary product of capitalism, and thus did not think it should become the structure of the new society:

The FORA had its roots in the immigrant community, which contained many European radicals in exile, including veterans of the Paris Commune. Thus, as resident aliens without the right to vote, party politics was not an option for many of its founders, even if they’d been that way inclined. This may help account for the FORA’s overtly anti-state communist ideology, as opposed to the ‘political neutrality’ more common amongst syndicalist unions at the time. In these two aspects, its anarchist communist ideology and its insistence the union should not form the basis of the post-capitalist society, the FORA is often contrasted with the Spanish CNT (who were closer to Pouget’s approach). There are certainly differences between the two, stemming from the differences in context, as well as differing theoretical conceptions of anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary social change. For instance, while the CNT advocated industrial unionism, the “FORA took a stand against industrial (sectoral) forms of organization, considering that they imitated capitalism.”90 In part because the FORA did not aim to form the structure of the new society, it formed a regional federation optimised for its agitational and organisational activities, as opposed to an industrial federation which could form the nucleus of a structure of social administration during the insurrectionary general strike.

FORA’s theoreticians developed a critique of European revolutionary syndicalism which they considered overly Marxist, of European anarcho-syndicalism, which they saw as trying in vain to reconcile revolutionary syndicalism with anarchism, and also of separate anarchist political organisations as proposed by Malatesta and the Platform. The “FORA countered this by advancing a model of an ‘anarchist organization of workers,’ structured like a syndicate but not limiting itself to strictly economic problems but also taking up issues of solidarity, mutual aid, and anarchist communism.”91 Thus, the FORA developed the most overtly ideological brand of anarcho-syndicalism, and it proved highly effective. With a membership of between 40,000 and 100,000 throughout the 1920s, they managed to win six hour work days through a series of local and regional general strikes.

The FORA’s stance, that imitating capitalism’s structure with an industrial union would lead to imitating capitalist relations after the revolution, was related to its conception of libertarian communism. This is worth examining, because it was partly at the root of an important split. Industrialisation was in its relatively early stages in Argentina at the dawn of the 20th century, and people had living memory of their ties to the land. Whilst these had been semi-feudal and hardly desirable conditions, they were still considered favourably by many compared with the horrors of modern industry and its giant sweatshops. The FORA critiqued the Marxist view that capitalist industrialisation was progressive as it developed the capacity for material abundance which made communism possible. They warned that imitating the structures of capitalism, whether its political state or its economic division of labour, would lead to just another version of capitalism, as had happened with the Communist Party in Russia.

Instead, the FORA theoreticians turned to the anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin, for inspiration. They argued history was not driven by inexorable economic laws, but also by ideas and ethical concepts (a critique later taken up by the German anarcho-syndicalist, Rudolf Rocker, in the first chapter of his ‘Nationalism and culture’). Consequently, rejecting the progressive nature of industry, they favoured a more agrarian communism based on the free commune and small scale production. One of their leading theoreticians, Emilio López Arango, wrote that rather than being the inheritor of the earth following on from capitalist industrialisation, the working class was rather:

This anti-industrialism led to a split in 1915. At the 9th Congress of the FORA, its commitment to anarchism was overturned in favour of a ‘neutral’ syndicalist stance. The anarchist unions immediately convened an emergency Congress and reverted to their anarchist communist position. There were now two FORAs. The anarcho-syndicalist one joined the IWA at its founding in 1922, while the more moderate split, known as the ‘FORA IX’ (which wasn’t communist and favoured industrial unionism), merged into the Union Sindicale Argentina in the same year, and then later into the Argentinean CGT. The FORA IX’s slide into reformism and class collaboration can be measured by the fact the FORA continued to face harsh repression, whilst its more moderate splits were relatively unimpeded (the CGT ended up as part of the Peronist corporatist settlement in the 1950s, when the Ministry of Labour made it the mandatory union for workers).93

Before we turn to the most famous anarcho-syndicalist organisation, the CNT, we will consider one more of the lesser known anarcho-syndicalist unions of the 20th century, the FAUD of Germany. Germany faced very different conditions to Argentina. There was already an established trade union movement several million strong, and outside of this was only the small Free Association of German Trade Unions (FVdG), a decentralised federation whose membership typically hovered around 6,000 nationally, and had peaked at 18,000 in 1901. The FVdG was originally the economic wing of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), but as this party gained power and revealed its reformist, class collaborationist nature, the FVdG increasingly adopted an anti-parliamentary stance and advocated socialism by means of the general strike rather than parliament led reforms. The years of World War I saw rising discontent amongst German workers at war discipline in production and austerity in living standards. This regime was being managed by the mainstream trade unions (Gewerkschaften), and led to increasing dissent amongst the workers in their ranks. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was taken by many as the signal that international revolution was imminent, and this sparked an upsurge in militancy.

During 1918-19, there was a near revolution in Germany. Workers occupied factories in some regions, forming factory councils to manage them; “the influence of the syndicalists rose quickly after the armed suppression of a general strike in the Ruhr in April 1919.”94 Indeed, “disappointed with the ‘old union’, the workers withheld membership dues, symbolically burned union cards, and urged entry into the FVdG.”95 In December 1919, the FVdG, together with several breakaways from the mainstream unions and some anarchists, formed the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD). The shift from ‘gewerkschaft’ (trade union) to ‘union’ (association of workers) signified the shift to anarcho-syndicalism. In 1920, there were open, civil war type battles in the industrialised Ruhr region. In the ‘Red Army of the Ruhr’, 45% of the soldiers were FAUD members.96 The FAUD, numbering some 112,000, called in vain for a general strike to turn back the tide of counter revolution, which was seeing revolutionaries extrajudicially murdered by the social democratic SPD government in league with the Freikorps, right wing militias of demobilised troops. The counter revolution most famously claimed the lives of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht of the Communist Party.

At the FAUD’s founding congress, the organisation had near unanimously adopted Rudolf Rocker’s ‘declaration of the principles of syndicalism.’97 Rocker was a communist anarchist who put an emphasis on both union action by workers and cultural change. A year later the FAUD appended ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ to their name, confirming this orientation. However, “the ebb of the revolutionary wave and government repressions led to a rapid decrease in the membership of the organization”, dwindling from over 100,000 to under 70,000 by 1922.98 As part of its cultural activities, the FAUD also formed women’s leagues in order to discuss the situation of working class women. These peaked at around 1,000 members and declined through the 1920s. The FAUD’s membership as a whole continued to decline through the 1920s as the Weimar Republic established itself. Membership stabilised around 25,000, higher than any of its pre-war, pre-revolution predecessors. The FAUD’s emphasis on political and cultural organising also meant that, despite its decline, “the FAUD remained relatively the strongest element within the anti-authoritarian camp of the Weimar Republic.”99  Summarising the FAUD’s brand of anarcho-syndicalism, Vadim Damier writes that:

The possibility of implementing this receded as the revolution was crushed by the combined forces of the Social Democrats and the Freikorps, who handled their dirty work. The Social Democrats legalised the factory councils in 1920, causing the FAUD to boycott them, as they turned from revolutionary organs into organs of class collaboration (similar institutions – works councils – were adopted across Europe after World War II). The fact the working class largely remained behind the Social Democrats in doing both of these things can’t be ignored either, and would seem to reflect the lack of anti-parliamentary agitation and organisation amongst the class prior to the war and revolution. The FAUD’s council model of social revolution meant they often worked alongside the council communist organisations, particularly in several armed uprisings in 1920 and 1921. But they remained critical towards the AAUD’s subjugation to the tutelage of the KAPD. When the AAUD-E rejected political parties, they were invited as observers to FAUD conferences. But despite some overlap of membership, there remained important differences over the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, and the role of revolutionary unions.

The FORA and the FAUD were not of course the only anarcho-syndicalist organisations of the 20th century. But these examples help to show how anarcho-syndicalism has taken different forms in different places in response to different conditions. Having surveyed the FORA and the FAUD, we can now turn to look at their more famous sister section in the International Workers Association, the CNT.

Anarcho-syndicalism is the industrial version of anarchism, and the anarchist version of syndicalism.

In industrial societies, the appropriate body to conduct revolutionary or transformative politics consists of workers organized around their industry, rather than their trade.

Since social power is at root economic rather than political, power can therefore be seized at its root.

David Miller, Anarchism (London 1984)

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