Black Flag: Syndicalism, Marxist Myth and Anarchist Reality

This is a very edited version of the review article Syndicalism, Marxist Myth and Anarchist Reality and will appear in the new issue of Black Flag (235) out May 2012. This issue also has as its revolutionary reprint Kropotkin’s 1890 article The Use of the Strike and this is included at the end of this review. In addition, a reply to an article Darlington wrote for Anarchist Studies based on his book will be published in issue vol. 20, No. 1 (an older version is available on-line).

Ralph Darlington’s Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism seeks to explain both the rise of syndicalism and why Leninism replaced it within the revolutionary left. As such, it is in two parts. The first is an attempt to explain what syndicalism is, its origins, its internal discussions, its growth and decline. The second presents the Leninist critique of syndicalism, based on the Bolsheviks’ attempts at “trying to win [the syndicalists] over to Marxism” (183) in the Comintern.

Sadly, his book fails on both counts. With his Marxist prejudices, Darlington fails to seriously investigate obvious sources on the origins of syndicalism in the libertarian wing of the IWMA and instead postulates Marxism as one of its core elements. Yet to proclaim that syndicalism had “core elements of anarchism, Marxism and trade unionism” (76) cannot be done once Bakunin’s ideas on the labour movement are acknowledged. His account shows the usual Leninist ignorance about anarchism, is squeezed into the ideological straightjacket that the Bolsheviks were, by definition, right. Sadly, this book will undoubtedly become the standard work used by Leninists to critique syndicalism. Given this, it is worthwhile to document its problems and show how they express preconceived assumptions rather than facts.

A key problem with Darlington’s work is that he completely fails to question his Marxist assumptions about anarchism. This can best be seen when he references SWP publications as if they were unproblematic works of scholarship. The flaws in this are exposed when Darlington discusses Italian Anarchism in the 1870s and proclaims that anarchist support rested “in the towns and countryside of the South and had relatively little following in the northern cities.” (70) To provide some academic respectability to this claim, he references an SWP book. Consulting that book shows that its author makes no attempt to bolster the claim with anything as trivial as empirical evidence. This is unsurprising, given that Marxist ideology assumes anarchists reject proletarian organisation and so, by definition, they must have been based in the peasantry. In reality the “real stronghold of Italian anarchism was north-central Italy” and “salaried workers, journeymen artisans, and independent artisans predominated” while the peasantry had “the least representation.” (Nunzio Pernicone, Italian Anarchism: 1864–1892)

This blindness to the reality of anarchism is repeatedly shown. He writes of how with the creation of the CNT “syndicalist principles of revolutionary unionism combined with anarchist notions” (53) but then later admits the Spanish anarchists in the 1870s “organised mainly in working men’s associations” and “recommended their supporters to join trade unions and take a forceful role in their activities and direction.” After proclaiming that “anarchists increasingly began to look to trade unions as a potential base for support” in the 1890s, he admits that in “Italy anarcho-syndicalism became a potent force after the Russian anarchist Bakunin had arrived in the country in the late 1860s,” that Malatesta “became an almost legendary figure for his advocacy of revolutionary action by the trade unions” and the Chicago anarchists in the 1880s “contributed to the building of a Central Labour Union which won the support of most of organised labour in the city.” (70-3) So Darlington himself shows how revolutionary anarchists had raised “principles of revolutionary unionism” decades before the term syndicalism was coined.

So keen to bolster his assertion that syndicalism “was far from an anarchist invention” (73), Darlington proclaims that “[u]nlike the classical anarchists, who sought a social basis for the revolutionary movement amongst the peasants, lumpen-proletariat and petty-bourgeois elements, syndicalists looked to mass working class collective action at the point of production in the workplace to change society” and “to transform the trade unions into revolutionary instruments of the proletariat in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, in the process making the unions, rather than communes, the basic units of a future socialist order.” (73-4)

Sadly for Darlington, it is easy to discover that anarchists held the positions he labels syndicalist and did not hold the ones labelled as anarchist. In the works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta and a host of other “classical” anarchists we discover a focus on the working class, economic class struggle and unions as both a means of struggle and as an unit of a (libertarian) socialist system.

As Kropotkin summarised the anarchists “since the foundation of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864-1866… have endeavoured to promote their ideas directly amongst the labour organisations and to induce those unions to a direct struggle against capital” and “its protector, – the State.” Workers would become “the managers of production” in a system “of independent Communes for the territorial organisation, and of federations of Trade Unions for the organisation of men in accordance with their different functions.” Unions were both “natural organs for the direct struggle with capitalism and for the composition of the future order.” The clear similarities of the ideas expressed with the syndicalist positions Darlington lists shows the weakness of his case.

Darlington notes that the rise in syndicalist influence across the world was “reflecting a widespread disaffection with parliamentary politics and reformist socialist parties” (57) but he singularly fails to note who argued that workers should organise in political parties and take part in “political action” in the IWMA – Marx and Engels! So if, as Darlington notes, Social Democracy had become reformist this suggests that Bakunin, not Marx, had been vindicated. Even worse for Darlington’s case, both Marx and Engels explicitly opposed syndicalist ideas when they were raised by libertarians in the IWMA.

Darlington praises the Bolsheviks for recognising the necessity for insurrection, “[u]nlike the syndicalists, who identified the general strike with social revolution.” (249) Yet we are not indebted to the Bolsheviks for this insight, given that Malatesta had raised it in 1907 at the International Anarchist Conference. He quotes Pataud and Pouget’s 1909 syndicalist novel How We Shall Bring About the Revolution while proclaiming that syndicalists aimed to “circumvent the state” (41) before admitting that for these French syndicalists “the concept of the general strike merged gradually with the older concepts of insurrection and revolutionary seizure of power.” (42) Pataud and Pouget themselves write of how the general strike “very soon changed into an insurrectional strike.”

Darlington states that for Marx and Engels “the capitalist state had to replaced by a new and transitional form of workers’ state, founded on workers’ councils.” (253) For Engels, though, the “democratic republic” was “the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat” and did not write of anything close to a soviet republic, as expressed by Bakunin:

“the Alliance of all labour associations... will constitute the Commune... [with] a Revolutionary Communal Council... [made up of] delegates... invested with binding mandates and accountable and revocable at all times... all provinces, communes and associations... [will] delegate deputies to an agreed place of assembly (all... invested with binding mandated and accountable and subject to recall), in order to found the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces... and to organise a revolutionary force with the capacity of defeating the reaction...”

This reflects the local federation of unions and Trades Unions Congress in How We Shall Bring About the Revolution or Darlington’s account of how the soviets were formed. (254) So the vision of socialism being based on workers councils is found in Bakunin and not Marx.

For Darlington there must be “a transitional period… during which time the working class would have to arm and organise itself against the threat of counter-revolution through the establishment of a workers’ state.” (252) Yet when Bakunin argued against Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” he did not deny the need to defend a revolution. The same can be said of syndicalists, with Pataud and Pouget writing a chapter entitled “The Arming of the People” and the CNT’s 1936 resolution on Libertarian Communism having a section entitled Defence of the Revolution.” Anarchist rejection of the Marxist “transitional” state lies in our analysis of the state. The so-called “workers’ state” would produce a new ruling elite simply because it was a state and, consequently, a centralised, top-down social structure. As the Russian Revolution showed, the Marxist “transitional state” was only transitional from one form of class rule (capitalists) to another (party/bureaucracy).

Darlington fails to discuss the realities of Bolshevik power, refusing to mention that leading Bolsheviks publicly advocated party-dictatorship and tried to turn it into a truism for the revolutionary movement at the Second Congress of the Comintern. He does recognise that something eventually went wrong in Russia yet soviet democracy, a workers’ militia and workers’ self-management of production were all destroyed under Lenin and Trotsky. We get a similar superficial analysis of the Spanish Revolution, with Darlington failing to mention the social context for the (flawed) decisions of the CNT-FAI. Instead, he blames it on syndicalist theory in spite of that arguing the opposite.

As far as critiques of syndicalism go, those seeking a real one are best served by reading Malatesta’s 1907 speech than Darlington’s book. Every valid aspect of the Leninist critique of syndicalism Darlington defends was first formulated far better by Malatesta – whether on the reformist pressures on trade unions, union bureaucracy, the need to turn the general strike into an insurrection and for political organisations to work within unions to introduce and maintain a revolutionary spirit. Yet this short but powerful critique of syndicalism is summed up as “Malatesta challenged [the syndicalists] for not being sufficiently ‘revolutionary.’” (73)

So we get a Leninism cleansed in a bath of democratic niceties which is contrasted to an account of syndicalism which, at time, goes into caricature. While this would be expected in a SWP rant against libertarian ideas, it is unacceptable for a work seeking academic acceptability.

Iain McKay

The Use of the Strike

In this article published in Freedom (April 1890), Kropotkin discusses the importance of strikes and unions in both improving conditions under capitalism but also in promoting revolutionary ideas and starting a social revolution. It is of note because it repeats long-standing anarchist ideas on the strike as well as raising these ideas long before French syndicalism was internationally known.

The workers of England have been bestirring themselves again during the past few weeks. This is a good and encouraging sign, although the demands made are comparatively trifling. It shows a healthy discontent with existing conditions, a kind of feeling that the capitalist is not doing quite the square thing by the worker. We are sure that at bottom this movement is due to the impetus of the energetic revolutionary nucleus of Socialists, which now exists in every large industrial centre and amongst every large body of workers in the country. It is our work to fan the flame by increasing the number of those who strive for a really fair division of the profits of labour, that is to say, for a total abolition of exploitation.

Let us hope – and we have every reason to feel that our wish will be realised – that the growth of those little groups of energetic men, scattered amongst our miners and our artisans, will equal, if not surpass, the growth of Socialism, which the recent political census has shown us in the case of Germany. We use the words “political census,” because we cannot regard that election as useful in any other way than as a numbering of the workers’ army, although it is of course an incomplete numbering. From the action of Messrs. Babel & Co., in the Reichstag we expect little, but from the 1,341,587 men who registered themselves as uncompromising enemies of the existing order, we hope much. Doubtless the effect of this political census in Germany has been and will be great upon William Hohenzollern and his associates, but far greater was the effect of the miners’ strike in Germany last year, and it is to that more than anything that the Berlin Labour Conference, of which some English Socialists make so much, is due. It is the Strike and not the Ballot Box which terrorises the exploiter and makes him see the shadow cast before by the coming Revolution.

Here, in England, there are many amongst the exploiting classes – who see dimly the danger ahead, and the capitalist press (and more especially that portion which circulates exclusively amongst the capitalist class, such as the trade journals) contains many articles just now urging the most drastic measures against their slaves who dare to rebel against their will and feebly ask for a higher wage or a shorter working week. The interference of the State is loudly demanded to put down these troublesome strikes and labour unions. The strong arm of the law is to be invoked not for but against the worker. “We have too much liberty,” one trade journal of the highest class shrieks in terrified tones; and indeed we shall not be surprised if the workers speedily have to guard against attempts upon such feeble rights of combination and free action as they possess.

There is perhaps no safer rule of thumb for the worker than to do that which his enemy most denounces and to avoid that which his enemy least objects to. To be a State Socialist, to advocate legislative restriction and to pass resolutions at mass or other meetings is sneered at generally and sometimes faintly praised by the capitalist press, but hold an unemployed meeting or two in Trafalgar Square, organise a strike, or initiate a no-rent campaign, and the enemy unmasks himself and charges the workers, who do these dreadful but practical things, with being Anarchists, enemies of society, disturbers of the public order. Long screeds are written, showing the terrible loss entailed on the community by this action, the selfishness of the strikers, the awful suffering of their families (which is never thought of under other circumstances) and so on. This unmeasured abuse on the part of the capitalists should convince even Social Democrats that the strike is a useful weapon, which will help the workers much in inaugurating the Revolution. Moreover, it is a weapon which the workers are learning to use with greater and greater effect. The association of unions, national and international, makes it possible for us to have strikes over a whole country and in more than one country at a time, The recent successful coal strike included about a quarter of a million of men and practically covered England, Wales and a part of Scotland.

The workers are beginning to learn also that not only is solidarity needful amongst the members of a trade and amongst all workers, but that the strikes which affect the greatest industrial necessaries are the most important. Coal, the indignant capitalist press tells us, is of the greatest importance to our industries, few of them can go on long if the coal strike lasts. How delightfully true this is. Why do not our candid enemies go still further and tell us point blank, “if you want a general strike first stop the coal supply.” Dock labour is also a very necessary commodity, at least the capitalists tell us so, and we are quite prepared to believe them. In fact the capitalist Balsam, in cursing the despised worker at the lowest rung of the ladder is really blessing him; he is declaring to all the world that everything would come to a standstill but for the man whose capital is in his hands. More, he is telling the worker that, if he will but organise himself effectively and freely, make common cause, with his unemployed brother and demand the whole, instead of merely a portion, of the proceeds of his labour, there is nothing to stop him. Let us, fellow-workers, thank friend Balaam and act upon his advice; let us spread the light in every corner of the land, infusing the spirit of Revolution into every mine, factory and workshop. By so doing, we shall soon have the workers of England no longer asking for trifling increases of wages, but demanding in sturdy tones a cessation of the system of robbery which obtains today.

Peter Kropotkin


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