Communism and Syndicalism

When I was producing my recent lengthy response to yet more AWL nonsense about anarchism, it got me thinking about precisely the difference between communism and syndicalism within anarchism. This lead me think about the importance of narrative, of how we explain ideas and movements. This relates to the notion of “conventional wisdom” (as popularised by John Kenneth Galbraith).

Obviously, I cover why many communist-anarchists do not consider themselves syndicalists in section J.3.9 of An Anarchist FAQ. However, I think its wise to go over it again – particularly as its been a few years since that section was written and I’ve done a lot more work on this (mostly in reply to Ralph Darlington’s book). And talking of which, since my last blog as well as the AWL reply I’ve also posted the Anarchist Studies (Volume 20, Number 1) version of my response to an article by Darlington in that journal. As I noted, Darlington declined to reply to my critique – I wonder why?

I do notice that most Marxists seem perplexed by the evidence and narrative this suggests as it is so at odds with their preconceived notions of anarchism and its history (and, for that matter, Marxism and its history). This, in turn, made me think about the role of narrative. Narrative is important, as can be seen from the current economic crisis. In the UK, the Tories had great success (thanks to a predominantly right-wing media) in turning a crisis caused by capital into one caused by excessive public-sector spending. Overturning a set narrative can be hard, although it gets easier once the evidence against it becomes better know and the consequences of the narrative start to impact on people.

The same with radical politics. Lenin in The State and Revolution saved Marxism from its glaring failure by redefining the narrative of Social Democracy. Rather than exposing the predictable (and predicted!) flaws in Marxism, in fact Social Democracy hide real Marxism. By use of appropriate quotes (and by avoiding mentioning other ones), Lenin skilfully recreated Marxism as well as misrepresented anarchism.

Thus it is thanks to this book we get Marxists proclaiming “most” libertarians supported the First World War. In reality it was a handful of people around Kropotkin and the French CGT (the Italian syndicalists who were pro-war were, in fact, Marxist-syndicalists as mentioned in section A.5.5 of An Anarchist FAQ). Unlike the Marxist movement, in which almost all Social Democratic Parties (bar a few small ones) supported their ruling class. Then there are numerous other myths (as discussed in section H.1.3 onwards in An Anarchist FAQ) as well as that old perennial that anarchists do not recognise the need to defend a revolution (see section H.2.1).

So in terms of shaping a generation of radicals, Lenin’s book worked. Of course, Leninist shaped the revolutionary movement for the worse but in terms of narrative it was very successful (he was less successful in producing socialism!). At times, though, the narrative Lenin weaves comes up against awkward facts (unsurprisingly, he does not bother to quote a single anarchist while commenting upon our ideas). Thus we discover Lenin quoting Engels from his critique of the draft of the Erfurt program of the German Social Democrats: “If one thing is certain it is that our Party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown.” (Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 227) Lenin immediately tries to spin this in The State and Revolution, claiming that Engels “repeated here in a particularly striking form the fundamental idea which runs through all of Marx’s work, namely, that the democratic republic is the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (The Lenin Anthology, p. 360) Yet Engels did nothing of the kind – he wrote of “the specific form” of the dictatorship, the “only” form in which “our Party” can come to power. Julius Martov, the leading Left-Menshevik, made this point at the time (specifically, 1919’s important work Decomposition or Conquest of the State).

I could go on, but that is moving away from what I wanted to waffle-on about (see section H.3.10 of An Anarchist FAQ if interested). So narrative is important. This can be seen from the standard Marxist narrative on anarchism. This runs as follows:

Anarchism is a petty-bourgeois ideology, created by the anti-strike and anti-union Proudhon who advocated small-scale property. It is against collective working class struggle and organisation as shown by Bakunin and Kropotkin and exemplified by “propaganda by deed.” A few anarchists support syndicalism, which is indebted to Marxism for its focus on the working class. Today, most anarchists follow Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin and so idealise the peasant-life and reject working class struggle and organisation in favour of lifestyle decisions and elitist minority actions.

I could point to various articles by the SWP, AWL, CPGB, etc. to back this summary up but anyone familiar with those sects will recognise its validity. That this is gibberish is obvious to anyone who has read any anarchist work – particularly anyone familiar with Bakunin and Kropotkin (hopefully Property is Theft! will make more revolutionary anarchists re-evaluate what they think they know about Proudhon, but we will see). All you need to do is compare the positions of the “good” syndicalists and the “bad” anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin (see section H.2.8 of An Anarchist FAQ, for example).

So narrative works only insofar as you are unaware of the evidence (hence the Tory narrative on the current crisis is becoming unstuck as the evidence of the impact of austerity becomes better known). Hence, I would say, the importance of things like An Anarchist FAQ and books like Black Flame (see my review). In terms of Black Flame, while I’m very happy it has been published (although I disagree about Proudhon!) in a way it is a shame it needed to written in the first place. The standard “academic” books on Anarchism (like Woodcock’s and Marshall’s) tend to downplay the class struggle and revolutionary aspects of the anarchist movement (we need to write our own histories!).

And as I’ve been hitting the archives and going through old copies of Freedom, I can confirm that communist-anarchism did not ignore the class struggle or the labour movement as Marxists like to assert. Given the response of the AWL to my extensive quotes from anarchists and that section H.2 of An Anarchist FAQ has been around for over a decade, I sadly have to come to the conclusion that mere facts will not disabuse Marxists of their narrative on anarchism any time soon.

So if the Marxist narrative is wrong, what would a narrative about anarchism based on the facts be? Well, Black Flame covers it well but as they get Proudhon wrong I will summarise my position.

Anarchism is a libertarian socialist tendency within the working-class movement. While anarchistic movements and thinkers existed before 1840, it is with Proudhon’s What is Property? that it becomes a named socio-economic theory and movement. Rather than an isolated thinker, Proudhon is part of a wider working class context and expresses ideas which are reflective of debates within those circles. After his death, these ideas were developed in the French and helped produce the First International. Proudhon’s anti-strike and anti-union positions are rejected, along with his reformism and a new revolutionary, union-focused anarchism develops (called “collectivism”) which shares many basic ideas and analyses. These ideas are championed by Bakunin and others in the First International and reflect many of the ideas later associated with syndicalism. After Bakunin’s death, collectivist anarchism evolves further into communist-anarchism. This, in part, gets sidetracked into “propaganda by the deed” in some countries for a short period but most anarchists (like Kropotkin, Malatesta and the Spanish anarchists) remain committed to working in the labour movement. This becomes internationally better known with the rise of revolutionary syndicalism in the French CGT. Rather than a new development, syndicalism reflects tactics raised by revolutionary anarchists in the late 1860s onwards.

Which is a bit longer than the Marxist one, sure, but more accurate. In terms of Proudhon’s contribution, I summarise this in my introduction to Property is Theft! and should not be controversial (although you would be surprised that a few libertarians seem happy to take Marx as an objective commentator on him). To quote that introduction:

“Proudhon’s critique of property, state and capitalism, his analysis of exploitation being rooted in wage-labour, his advocacy of a decentralised and federal system of communes and workers’ associations, his support for workers’ self-management of production, his call for working class autonomy and self-activity as the means of transforming society from below, all these (and more) were taken up and developed by collectivist, communist and syndicalist anarchists.”

It is clear that Bakunin was heavily indebted to the French anarchist, going so far to state that Proudhon was “great and true master of us all.” (“Bakunin on Political Action”, pp. 42-3, Freedom, vol. XVIII No. 193 (November 1904), p. 43) I have to note that this article also contained this sentence as well: “Equality without liberty is an unhealthy fiction created by knaves to deceive fools.” (42) Kropotkin, in his accounts of anarchism, painted a similar picture (although he mudded the waters somewhat by mentioning Godwin whose influence on the movement was non-existent).  Importantly, as well as mentioning Proudhon in his entry on Anarchism for the Encyclopaedia Britannia) he also noted that revolutionary anarchism arose in the First International and that it advocated what would now be called a syndicalist approach:

“They [the anarchists] do not seek to constitute, and invite the workers not to constitute, political parties in the parliaments. Accordingly, since the foundation of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864-1866, they have endeavoured to promote their ideas directly amongst the labour organisations and to induce those unions to a direct struggle against capital, without placing their faith in parliamentary legislation…Within these federations [of the First International] developed now what may be described as modern anarchism. …The great bulk of the anarchist workers prefer the anarchist-communist ideas which have gradually evolved out of the anarchist collectivism of the International Working Men’s Association.”

In a letter to Freedom on Bakunin, Kropotkin reiterated this by arguing that Bakunin “found the proper surroundings and ground for his revolutionary agitation in the International Working Men’s Association. Here he saw masses of workers of all nations joining hands across frontiers, and striving to become strong enough in their Unions to throw off the yoke of Capitalism. And at once he understood what was the chief stronghold the workers had to storm, in order to be successful in their struggle against Capital – the State…. “Destroy the State!” became the war-cry … “Down with Capitalism and down with the State!”  (Freedom, Vol. XXVIII No. 302 (June 1914), p. 46)

So revolutionary anarchists have always advocated syndicalism (revolutionary working class struggle and organisation) as a tactic. Indeed, as part of my search I found a 1907 article by Kropotkin where he not only states that he considered the First International as syndicalist but also that “[t]he anarchists have always believed that the working class movement – organised in each trade for the direct conflict with Capital (today in France it is called Syndicalism and ‘direct action’) constitutes, true strength, and is capable of leading up to the Social Revolution and realising it.” (“Anarchists and Trade Unions”, pp. 33-34, Freedom, Vol. XXI No. 218 (June, 1907), p. 33) Elsewhere, he explicitly shows his support for the revolutionary unionism of the Chicago Martyrs (see section A.5.2 of An Anarchist FAQ): “Were not our Chicago Comrades right in despising politics, and saying the struggle against robbery must be carried on in the workshop and the street, by deeds not words?” (Freedom, Vol. 5 No. 61 (December 1891), p. 88)

So what of the relation of communist to syndicalist versions of anarchism? Some (revolutionary) anarchists are not syndicalists while some syndicalists are not anarchists. Does this not mean, as Marxists suggest, syndicalism is not really anarchist? Of course not, as syndicalism is a tactic – one which anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin advocated in direct opposition to the political action advocated by Marx and Engels. That some Marxists subsequently came to the same conclusion as Bakunin does not make syndicalism less libertarian!

The difference between communist-anarchism and syndicalism is, I would argue, is rooted in different perspectives on the nature and role of the labour movement within anarchism. Let me be clear that the communist-anarchist and the syndicalist agree on the importance of working class self-organisation and direct action. Kropotkin summarised the communist-anarchist perspective well in 1907:

“Workmen’s organisations are the real force capable of accomplishing the social revolution – after the awakening of the proletariat has been accomplished, first by individual action, then by collective action, by strikes and revolts extending more and more; and where workmen’s organisations have not allowed themselves to be dominated by the gentlemen who advocate ‘the conquest of political power’, but have continued to walk hand in hand with anarchists – as they have done in Spain – they have obtained, on the one hand, immediate results (an eight-hour day in certain trades in Catalonia), and on the other have made good propaganda for the social revolution – the one to come, not from the efforts of those highly-placed gentlemen, but from below, from workmen’s organisations.” (“Anarchists and Trade Unions”, p. 33)

Obviously this position can be (and is!) generalised into workplace assemblies and their federation and not necessarily a union but the key point remains – revolutionary anarchists stress, like syndicalists, the importance of workers self-organisation and direct, collective struggle (regardless of what clueless Marxists may assert – see section H.2.2 of An Anarchist FAQ for an example). However, unlike pure syndicalists they do not equate the labour movement with the anarchist movement.

So rather than being anti-syndicalism as some historians have suggested, the communist-anarchist position is actually syndicalism-plus. Syndicalism is a tactic, an important one, but it is not the be-all and end-all of anarchist activity. So, in effect, communist-anarchists would suggest that syndicalists turn a means into an end and fail to acknowledge the importance of anarchist groups working within the unions to keep them radical. As Kropotkin put it in 1914:

“The syndicate is absolutely necessary. It is the only form of working-men’s group that permits of maintaining the direct struggle against capital, without falling into parliamentarianism. But evidently it does not take that trend mechanically, since we have in Germany, France and England syndicates rallying to parliamentarianism, and in Germany orthodox syndicates which are very powerful, etc. The other element is necessary, the element of which Malatesta speaks and which Bakunin has always practised.” (quoted by G. Woodcock and I. Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince, p. 295)

So the communist-anarchist recognises the importance of an anarchist federation and that unions are not automatically, by their very nature, revolutionary organisations. Insofar as a libertarian downplays the need for anarchists to organise as anarchists and stresses that labour organisations by themselves can become revolutionary (“self-sufficient”) then they are a syndicalist-anarchist.

So if some ultra-revolutionary anarchists completely separated themselves from the labour movement (happy in their splendid isolation), the syndicalists went too far in the opposite direction and merged with that movement. Yet a union needs to be open to all workers, regardless of their political opinion, in order to be effective. If it is open to just anarchists then it is a workplace anarchist group – which is a useful thing to have – but it is not a union. So syndicalism in its pure sense means fusing the anarchist movement with the labour movement and that is simply confusing two distinct (if related) things.

As Kropotkin mentioned Bakunin, I should quote him. Writing of the relationship between the Alliance for Social Democracy (an anarchist federation) and the International Working Men’s Association, Bakunin argued that the former “is the necessary complement to the International. But the International and the Alliance, while having the same ultimate aims, perform different functions. The International endeavours to unify the working masses . . . regardless of nationality or religious and political beliefs, into one compact body: the Alliance, on the other hand, tries to give these masses a really revolutionary direction.” This did not mean that the Alliance was imposing a foreign theory onto the members of the unions, because the “programs of one and the other . . . differ only in the degree of their revolutionary development . . . The program of the Alliance represents the fullest unfolding of the International.” (Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 157)

So we need a sensible approach, one which balances the need to be in the labour movement (and general popular resistance) as well as the need to be organised as anarchists to influence that movement and resistance. Malatesta, like Bakunin, put it well in numerous articles (section J.3 of An Anarchist FAQ covers the nature and role of the specific anarchist organisation). That is, I would say, the difference between communism and syndicalism in the anarchist movement. It is not much, but it is important. Particularly when we get Marxists (like Darlington) trying to drive a wedge between the two – while, at the same time, providing just enough evidence to destroy his own assertions (the focus of the short version of the review I did for Black Flag). As such be obvious by now, I class myself as a communist-anarchism.

I’ve concentrated on Kropotkin as I’ve been doing research on him, but I could as easily quote Malatesta (my favourite dead anarchist, as I noted a while back). In some circles, he is presented as being anti-syndicalist. Those who do seem to forget that Malatesta stayed in Argentina between 1885 and 1889 and urged anarchists there to participate in the labour movement, helped found the baker’s union and drew up its charter for that organization which, in turn, became the standard for the other militant unions which became the FORA (The Influence of Italian Immigration on the Argentine Anarchist Movement by Osvaldo Bayer). Which seems a strange thing to do for someone habitually portrayed as being anti-syndicalist!

I would urge you to do yourself a favour and read Malatesta’s works, many of which are on-line (I would recommend An Anarchist Programme). Sadly, an important article on anarchism and syndicalism from Freedom in 1907 does not seem to be available on-line (it is in the Freedom Press book The Tradition of Worker’s Control by Geoffrey Ostergaard). Suffice to say, Malatesta always urged anarchists to take an active part in the labour movement but warned against turning from a means to an end as well as warning us against the simplistic notions of the general strike raised by some, but not all (as can be seen from Pataud and Pouget), syndicalists.

As I suggestion in my review of the 1907 anarchist congress (the book is available on-line), Malatesta’s position of syndicalism-plus has been proved correct. Let me quote from his simply wonderful speech:

“The conclusion … is that syndicalism is a necessary and sufficient means for social revolution… that syndicalism is sufficient unto itself. And this is, in my opinion, a radically erroneous doctrine. The aim of my speech is to counter this doctrine.

“Syndicalism, and more precisely the workers’ movement (the workers’ movement is a fact that no-one can ignore, whereas syndicalism is a doctrine, a system, and we must avoid confusing them), the workers’ movement, I repeat, has always found in me a staunch, but not blind, defender. It is because I see it as a particularly favourable terrain for our revolutionary propaganda and at the same time a point of contact between the masses and ourselves… I have never stopped fighting that attitude of haughty isolation wherever I have found it… nor pushing comrades back to the path that the syndicalists, forgetting a glorious past, call new, but that the first anarchists had already established and followed within the International.”

That sums it up pretty well, even including a reference to that awkward fact (for the Marxist narrative!) that the revolutionary anarchists had been advocating the tactic of revolutionary/militiant unionism since the 1860s. Malatesta concludes by stating “I used to deplore the fact that comrades isolated themselves from the workers’ movement. Today, I deplore the fact that many of us are going to the opposite extreme and allowing ourselves to be absorbed by that movement.” Syndicalism is “simply [a] means. Anarchy is the goal.” That, again, sums it up well. Malatesta is, clearly, not arguing against anarchist participation in the labour movement. He is arguing against merging the two movements and turning a means into a goal or turning one means of many into a single means.

Good news Malatesta fans, AK Press has a project which plans to translate all 10 volumes of his collected works into English. Also planned is a single volume Selected Works which I would love to get involved in. Saying that, going through some older issues of Freedom (from the 1920s) I came across many interesting articles by Emma Goldman and Rudolf Rocker, both of whom really need comprehensive anthologies as well! I would like to see an equivalent of Property is Theft! for Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Rocker and Goldman within the next ten years. This because we need to build a new movement and theories and building work is best done with solid foundations and that means knowing what anarchists thought and did in the past.

Anyways, back to Kropotkin. Caroline Cahm’s Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886 remains the best work on this aspect of Kropotkin’s ideas and, crucially, the revolutionary anarchism (“collectivism” or “Bakuninism”) which had developed in the libertarian wing of First International and which he embraced and helped develop. While this is an essential read for anyone trying to understand anarchism I doubt many have read it – few Marxists writing about anarchism seem to bother!

Also, I should note that Kropotkin himself bemoaned how his position on unionism had been distorted by enemies: “I now ask myself if it would not be useful to make a selection of these articles [on the labour movement] and publish them in a volume.” (“Anarchists and Trade Unions”, p. 33) Unfortunately, he never did so we have a somewhat distorted perspective of his position – I hope the Kropotkin anthology I’m currently working on will help clear the matter up once and for all.

In some ways, it is a shame I felt the need to write on this subject – the account I’m giving will not be new to anyone with even a basic understanding of anarchist theory and history. Unfortunately, many Marxists peddle complete nonsense about anarchism so it needs to be repeated until they stop. Darlington and the AWL are just the latest to do so, although Darlington’s much worse as his book is presented as a serious work with academic pretensions.

And, finally, Kropotkin considered the anarchists to be “socialists, of whom they constitute the left wing” (to quote his entry on Anarchism for the Encyclopaedia Britannia). Which raises the question of who did he think was the right wing of the socialists? Unsurprisingly, it was the Marxists, the Social Democracy which was “the right wing of the great Socialist movement not this movement itself.” (The Coming Revival of Socialism, p. 1) He also proclaims:

“It is not only more wages that labour wants. Not only shorter hours… It agitates for the disappearance of the capitalist system. It wants to expropriate the capitalist, to make all into its own hands – fields, docks, railways, flourmills and storehouses and to organise everything in the interest of those who produce.” (The Coming Revival of Socialism, pp. 7-8)

And I should note that Freedom was full of articles on how anarchists were socialists as well as on labour struggles (not to mention articles by syndicalists). Again, that would only be surprising to those Marxists who waffle on about anarchism and yet only show how ignorant they are of it.

One last thing, I’ve thinking about updating the Kropotkin articles in the new anthology – basically, changing references in his English articles to “Workmen” to “Workers” (so “Workmen’s organisations…” would become “Workers’ organisations…) and changing “middle-class” to “bourgeois” (as “middle-class” means something else now). Any thoughts on this? It will not change the meaning – so should the documents remain as they are (dated language and all) or should we make them more accessible for modern readers? I did this for the old translations for Property is Theft! but as these were not originally in English, I did not consider this problematic. However, here I would be changing some articles and letters originally written by Kropotkin in English… so I’m in two-minds about it!

Until I blog again, be seeing you…


Thought you might want to

Thought you might want to bring attention to this massive deception by omission.
"Real Homes, Real Dow" at

you could keep the historical

you could keep the historical language, but put in footnotes/index/asterisk that kind of clarification you think is neccesary, so readers get the bona fide historical writing, and have the ability to check to make sure exactly what he means, applied to a modern context.

I don't think you should

I don't think you should change Kropotkin's words. That would corrupt the historical accuracy of the anthology, and make it more difficult to place his writings in context.


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