On Marxism and Syndicalism, again

First off, I should mention my A Brief History of Anarchism article I posted to celebrate May Day. This was a write-up of a talk I gave at Housemans bookshop to mark the publication of volume 2 of An Anarchist FAQ. It was a well attended event and the speech seemed to have went down well. They may have me back for something to do with Proudhon. Now I return to something I have blogged before about, Marxism and Syndicalism. I get the impression that there is a distinct tendency in Leninist circles to appropriate syndicalism going on. I wonder why?

Some context. I did something I have not done for a while, namely attend a Leninist group meeting. I saw a lunchtime meeting organised by the AWL on “Marxism and Syndicalism” and, after some humming and hawing, decided to attend. Being at lunch meant I did not have to miss valuable family time and impose any extra burdens on my partner in terms of looking after the children. On the other hand, it is a waste of a sunny lunchtime and I doubted that I would learn anything new.

In the end I decided to attend and produced a leaflet on syndicalism (extracts of two old pieces on Syndicalism, Marxism and Anarchism produced in response to an SWPer’s article and book on syndicalism). I thought that they would, like Darlington’s book, argue that syndicalism was not rooted in anarchism, that it denied the need for insurrection and that Leninism/Marxism was the way forward (after noting that many syndicalists became Bolshevism post-First World War).

I seem to be better known than I think I am as most of the AWLers knew me (probably from their conference in 2011). After that conference I made some notes of my experience called Leninists are Strange and this can be considered a mini-sequel. I do so because there seems to a growing tendency in Leninist circles to downplay, if not dismiss, the anarchist roots of syndicalism. This can be seen from Darlington’s book and it was repeated at the talk. It is also reflected when the Chicago anarchists are proclaimed as somehow “synthesising” anarchism and Marxism (my arse!) – by having the same revolutionary ideas as Bakunin!

I think my presence resulted in the speaker stating that this meeting was not about anarchism and Marxism, although that could only be the case if you present a version of syndicalism which ignores its anarchist roots. That was, of course, done. The speaker failed to mention that IWMA and how the idea of unions as both the means of fighting and replacing capitalism was raised by the Belgium section at its 1868 conference in Brussels. By ignoring these very obvious roots of syndicalism, you cannot help draw wrong conclusions and I had to point out this out. If you do not want a meeting on syndicalism not to become one of anarchism and Marxism do not start by ignoring or denying the libertarian roots of syndicalism!

But this is not surprising, given that any accurate account of the history of anarchism (like, for example, the excellent and mostly correct Black Flame) shows that syndicalism has always been a tactic of revolutionary anarchism. To mention this blows the standard Leninist “anarchism is petty-bourgeois individualism” line out the water (and this is something the AWL has inflicted upon the world as have the SWP).

It also did not help that the speaker started by asserting that syndicalists had “our [Leninist] politics but with their head missing”! This provoked me to mutter “that is not patronising in the slightest” and the speaker to complain that we would be there all day if I kept interjecting. I agreed and promised to quietly to take notes, waiting my turn. But still, what an unnecessarily patronising and smug way to start a talk. I do think that the likes of Tom Mann deserve better than that!

The speaker also suggested, as evidence for this assertion, that many syndicalists viewed the Russian Revolution as a syndicalist revolution. True – but he failed to mention that many anarchists (like Emma Goldman) viewed the Bolshevik revolution as anarchistic. Understandably, given the ignorance of what was happening in Russia and the creation of soviets, factory committees, and so on that were taking place. As I suggested, these days what happened under the Bolsheviks is far better known (at least outside of Leninist circles) and so (to use Berkman’s term) The Bolshevik Myth appeals to fewer radicals. As such, the hope that modern day syndicalists will make the same journey as some of their ancestors 100 years ago is mislaid.

Here I should note that I am not a syndicalist and, as such, agree with some of the Leninist critique of it – although as I have noted before, Malatesta presented its valid aspects far better in 1907. So I agree that you need to organise as revolutionaries to influence the class struggle (this should not be confused with vanguardism) and that unions have pressures upon them to become reformist and bureaucratic due to their role in society. And, of course, I said as much.

However, saying that I have to admit that I can see the point of the syndicalist opposition to political parties and desire to keep the unions neutral. Strangely, the speaker did not summarise why the syndicalists viewed the trade union and not the party as the revolutionary organisation nor their hostility to political parties. They had their reasons, reasons that need to be explained, understood and refuted rather than ignored. Particularly as they are good reasons!

After all, the standard Bolshevik position was against union autonomy and that the party should determine union policy. This, of course, is ties a class organisation to a cross-class one (the union, open only to workers, to the party, open to – and usually dominated by – bourgeois elements). This was the case in Social Democracy (including its radical offshoot, the Bolsheviks). As Emile Pouget put it in his The Party of Labour:

“More and more capitalists, bosses, etc. are being won over to socialism and these reconcile their parasitical existence as best they can with the acting out of their beliefs. One of the things that attracts recruits from the enemy camp is the deviation in the direction of parliamentarism. Whereas they have not quite completely been eliminated, then at least the fact that the theory of taking government power has relegated revolutionary concerns to the background, has whetted some appetites. And these defectors from the bourgeoisie have calculated the benefits of turning socialist and cherish the hope of gaining the upper hand in that way. So much so that there are those who become socialists the way that others become lawyers or publicans. It is regarded as a career move - an excellent way of getting ahead?

“The Party of Labour need have no fear of such dangers. By virtue of the very fact that it is constructed upon the class interests of the proletariat and that its action takes place in the sphere on economics, there is no way that individuals can rely upon it or invoke it in the satisfaction of their selfish interests. The contradiction there is formal and insurmountable. Indeed, since the gratification of personal ambition is feasible only in the realm of politics, any who attempt any such chicanery and pursue a selfish private interest within the Party of Labour can accomplish but one thing: their own self-exclusion from the labour camp.”

Kropotkin, incidentally, argued the same as Pouget (as Direct Action Against Capital will show, Kropotkin’s syndicalism was far more pronounced than some historians have suggested). Of course, this ignores the dangers of officialdom in the unions but it is still relevant. And, of course, the Bolshevik party itself had lots of “revolutionary” bureaucrats and do you want union policy influenced by party hacks? A union needs to be run by its members and any outside influence should be based on the validity of the ideas being raised. So union autonomy is important!

Which raises another issue, namely on how revolutionaries intervene. The speaker stated that by intervening in the union as individuals rather than as part of a party then it could become elitist (he used the term “invisible pilots”, a dig at Bakunin and his much misunderstood “invisible dictatorship” term). He argued that parties are democratically organised, with clear politics decided by debate rather than a minority which were “not accountable.” Not sure what to make of that, given that logically it implies that only members of political parties should be allowed to intervene in union discussions! Also, it seems based on a vision of “democracy” by which people elect representatives rather than mandate delegates. In such cases, people stand on their platforms and implement them once elected – and so ensure that policy is decided by the party full-timers rather than union members. It also leads to strange events like the 1920 soviet election which saw workers in a Chemical factory have the choice between such proletarians as Lenin and Martov as their elected workplace representative!

(As an aside, Lenin in Left-Wing Communism talks of both how the soviets were the most “democratic institutions, the like of which even the best democratic republics of the bourgeois have never known” and how the Bolsheviks had implemented non-party conferences to allow the party “to be able to observe the temper of the masses, come closer to them, meet their requirements”. Clearly voting by party-list had its drawbacks! Still, when these forums were used to raise the issues of the masses the Bolsheviks acted swiftly – and got rid of them).

So it very much depends on the vision of decision making you have in mind – whether union meetings are a means by which members directly control their organisations and struggles by means of mandating delegates or whether they are means by which the party gets influence and support for electing representatives to implement its programme. I am of the opinion that it is the validity of the ideas being raised that counts and that prefacing any contribution with “I am a member of X party” draws attention away from the issues at hand.

From experience, I would say that the only benefit that people proclaiming their party allegiances produces is that it helps explain some of the frankly crazy interventions at meetings I’ve seen as members try to raise the party line rather than discuss the practicalities of the struggle being faced (I am thinking of the SWP and the anti-poll tax movement here). Still, even without the proclaiming of party membership you could usually identify who was a member of what party based on how they started their interventions (the SWP members usually gained great insight on the futility mass non-payment by watching news reports and drawing the conclusion that we needed to call upon the STUC to mobilise the industrial strength of postal workers, for example).

We do need to discuss “political” issues, of course. It is a question of how we do so and how we fight them (direct action or “political action”). And from my experience I would say a problem with British unions is that many so-called “revolutionaries” view them as recruitment tools for their sects rather than organisations of class struggle. Sure, they do good work on keeping them going, doing case and administrative work, but you would easily fail to realise that they were meant to be revolutionary Marxist-Leninists…

Also, of course, this has links to Lenin’s vanguardism and the arguments of What is to Be Done? on how bourgeois intellectuals, not workers, were the agents of socialist consciousness and, as such, socialist ideas had to be introduced into the working class from outside by the party (see section H.5 of An Anarchist FAQ). In this, Lenin was quoting Kautsky who was stating the standard Social Democratic (“political socialist”) position of the time. The syndicalists were right to oppose this elitist notion, arguing that workers could free themselves by their own actions and organisations. Moreover, I should have noted at the meeting that the French Marxists lead by Guesde, like the Bolsheviks, wished to control the unions and dictate their policies, turning them into adjuncts of the party – and that, inspired by Marx and Engels, he dismissed the general strike and was prepared to split the labour movement over the issue.

We do need to discuss how conscious working class revolutionaries to influence the rest of our class but the basis of this must be a rejection of vanguardism, not its acceptance. And it should be noted (and I did) that syndicalists did create propaganda groups such the Foster’s Syndicalist League, Mann’s groups, the French group around the paper Workers’ Life and so on. Acceptance of syndicalism did not negate the creation of groups in addition to revolutionary unions.

So, in a nutshell, the syndicalists had a point. Sadly, the speaker did not discuss their reasons for their positions (i.e., their heads were not missing and were used!). In addition, I am still at a bit of a loss to understand why intervening as a member of a political party increases accountability and is more democratic. In some ways, it is less so as the member of a Leninist Party has to put the decisions of the party’s central committee above the decisions of the union membership. This is embedded into Leninism, as seen by Lenin’s comments in What is to Be Done? on not reducing socialism to trade unionism and introducing socialist ideas into the working class from outside.

The main theme of the talk seemed somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, we had the claim that revolutionary syndicalism not primarily anarchist (it was explicitly stated he was not talking of anarcho-syndicalism which was first used in the 1920s) and, in fact, the syndicalists were, in the main, “political socialists.” This, on reflection after the meeting, seemed to be problematic as the speaker was both trying to rewrite history to present “political socialists” as being the founders of syndicalism yet, at the same time, arguing that the syndicalists ignored the importance of political parties. You cannot have it both ways.

The speaker claimed that of the French syndicalists only Pouget was an anarchist. Which ignores the likes of Monatte, for example, not to mention the key figure of Fernand Pelloutier and the Brouse de Travail. He stated that  French syndicalism came from a reaction against the focus on political action and to a divided (Marxist) left. CGT, he stated, was founded by “political socialists” – so ignoring it was not originally syndicalist and that the key event in its development was the fusion with the Brouse de Travail. The article Fernand Pelloutier and Revolutionary Syndicalism summarises his influence while I’ve discovered that an English translation of his History of the bourses du travail is on-line (as is his famous article Anarchism and the Workers Union).

In short, a union can be founded by “political” socialists and then become syndicalist. The IWW springs to mind for although many anarchists attended the founding convention in 1905 it took until 1908 for its preamble to exclude references to uniting on the political field as well as the economic one (I will not get into the differences between industrial unionism and syndicalism here). The same can be said of individuals, with Tom Mann moving from a political socialist to party and union to anti-parliamentarian syndicalist position before, post-1917, becoming a communist (the speaker failed to mention Mann resigned from SDF in 1911 proclaiming his opposition to parliamentary activity). At the meeting I did note that Mann proclaimed his friend Kropotkin a “grand old comrade” in his preface to the English translation of Pouget’s syndicalist novel How We Brought About the Revolution.

I think that the speaker’s position presents a similar problem as Black Flame’s suggestion that de Leon, Haywood, Connolly, etc. were part of a “wider” anarchist tradition. No, they were not – they remained “political socialists” who happened to also see the need for industrial struggle and organisation. In that they took up ideas previously associated with anarchism, yes, but they did not deny the need for the Socialist Party (quite the reverse!). Ironically, in the case of Haywood it was the Socialist Party which denied the need for industrial unionism and it passed a resolution expelling those members who advocated syndicalist tactics. However, these people do not make syndicalism an offshoot of Marxism which is as flawed as suggesting they were libertarians.

So, as with Darlington, the speaker ignored the historical context as well as the evolution and spread of syndicalist ideas. That some Marxists advocated syndicalism does not mean that syndicalism is Marxist or influenced by Marxism. The question is, given that these Socialists were in revolt (to whatever degree) with the Marxist orthodoxy inherited from the ideas of Marx and Engels (as expressed in the debates in the IWMA), what does that mean in terms of the validity of Marxism and its ideas of social transformation? As I noted at the meeting, the history of Social Democracy proved Bakunin’s predictions right and not Marx’s. That some Marxists saw the validity of Bakunin’s syndicalist ideas is of interest and, perhaps, lead to a rethink of whether socialism took the right path from the 1870s onwards.

The speaker stated that he did not wish the discussion to be a “Marxists verses syndicalism” kind of thing as he wanted to stress what they had in common. He gave the following list as what defined syndicalism, some of which he agreed with and others less so:

  • Asserts primacy of economic struggle
  • Industrial working class self-organisation
  • General strike as the means of revolution
  • Trade unions as precursor of socialist society

As I noted in my first comment, that list is basically correct but it is also what Bakunin and other libertarians had raised in the IWMA and what Marx and Engels spent a lot of time fighting. In terms of the debates on what the IWMA should be, Marx and Engels wished to transform it into a political party utilising “political action” (voting) while Bakunin wanted it to be a federation of unions focused on economic struggle. In short, it was basically same as the syndicalist position.

Which raises the question of why are Leninists so keen to appropriate syndicalism as “Marxist” while, at the same time, failing to mention that the Marxist tradition from the IWMA onwards was precisely the “political” socialism syndicalists rejected as counter-productive? The speaker also suggested that the syndicalists shared certain elements in common with AWL’s politics – such as the industrial struggle has the primary focus, which is ironic given that this was not Marx’s position! He destroyed the IWMA to ensure that it placed “political action” (electioneering) at the fore, against Bakunin who stressed the primacy of economic struggle and organisation.

To acknowledge the obvious links to revolutionary anarchism and Bakunin also raises significant problems for any the attempt to portray anarchism as being opposed to class struggle and revolutionary unionism, which both the SWP and AWL suggest with care-free abandon. I did produce a leaflet with extensive quotes in it for the debate I had with the AWL back in 2011 and I wondered how they would dismiss the extensive evidence marshalled in it. I got a glimpse into how this was possible when one of them suggested that I “scattered” quotes in my work and concentrated on “thrown away comments” by Bakunin and Kropotkin! Needless to say, I replied that these were not “throw away comments” made in passing but from important works written as contributions to debates in the movement and in the IWMA. I mentioned my Kropotkin anthology Direct Struggle Against Capital to stress that Kropotkin’s decades-long advocacy of anarchist involvement in the union movement and revolutionary class struggle was a core part of his ideas.

The comrade seemed particularly bothered by my “scattering” of the quote by Engels on refashioning the “old” state and suggested that “replace” would be a better term. Yet, as I noted, this quote was in response to someone asking what Marx meant in The Civil War in France about smashing the “state machine” and that is what he replied. Here is the full quote:

“It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes: whereas all bourgeois republicans since 1848 inveighed against this machinery so long as they were in the opposition, but once they were in the government they took it over without altering it and used it partly against the reaction but still more against the proletariat.” (Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 74)

This is more than confirmed by the many comments by Engels, and by Marx, on the need to win political power by means of the legislative (this is covered, with appropriate quotes, in section H.3.10 of An Anarchist FAQ). And I should note that I came across this via a history of the Socialist Party of Great Britain who use it, rightly, to show how far Leninism is from the Marxist tradition (as understood as what Marx and Engels actually argued). To understand how the SPGB Need to understand that Marx and Engels talked to the “state power” or “state machinery” rather than the state and that this was considered as a pre-bourgeoisie inheritance in Continental European states, which Britain and America (and Holland) did not have.

Lenin was aware of the contradiction in his argument, namely that Marx and Engels argued that the state had to be “smashed” and that workers could use the vote and capture the state in Britain and America. He explained it by arguing that these states did not have a bureaucracy or large-scale military in the 1870s in the countries. This was not true nor does it refute the idea that the state had to be captured and transformed by smashing the existing bureaucracy. After all, this was what had happened in the Paris Commune which was not a soviet but rather the existing local council to which revolutionaries were elected to (using universal male suffrage in the existing wards) after the spontaneous revolt of 18th of March. This should be well known, particularly given Marx stated it clearly in The Civil War in France!

In terms of any apparent contradiction, the position Engels clarified (as quoted above) resolves it. For Marx and Engels, the state could be captured by socialists using the ballot box and then transformed (the old state bureaucracy, the “state power” or “state machinery”, would be smashed). This allows both Marx’s suggestion that workers could vote socialism in and that insurrection was needed (where universal suffrage did not exist). Hence the 1894 statement by Engels that a “republic, in relation to the proletariat, differs from a monarchy only in that it is the ready-made political form for the future rule of the proletariat. You [in France] have the advantage of us in that it is already in being; we, for our part, shall have to waste 24 hours creating it…” (Collected Works, vol. 50, p. 276). Whether Marx and Engels would still argue this position now is, of course, unknown. The SPGB do, Leninists do not. However, in terms of being closest to what Marx and Engels actually argued then the former is closer than the latter.

(As an aside, this raises the question of how far from Marx and Engels do you need to be to no longer qualify as a Marxist? The likes of the SWP and AWL argue that Stalinism was not Marxist, but given many of the similarities in socio-economic relationships under Lenin and Stalinism it seems hard to know where to draw the line – although the SPGB have a good case for excluding Bolshevism from the Marxist tradition)

At the meeting I did say why I “scattered” quotes – you need quotes to show you are not making stuff up (although as the AWL itself shows, you can cherry-pick quotes to prove the opposite of the truth). I try to ensure that all my important articles (rather than leaflets, etc) are fully referenced so you can check to make sure I am not quoting out of context. Ultimately, it is not my fault that Marx and Engels did not quite say what Lenin wanted them to (as Martov noted way back in 1919 in an important essay which should be read by all socialists).

The speaker suggested that the syndicalists viewed the trade union as a fusion as three distinct things:

  • Class organisations (unions)
  • The revolutionary/political party
  • Future structure of socialist society

This lead to a contradiction, as a union needs to organise all workers and if it is a democratic organisation then it is a bit much to assume it will remain revolutionary if its members are not. Which is true, of course, although this ignores the educative impact of struggle. However, I think he was right to argue that the level of consciousness not a fixed quality (nor, I must add, the level of attendance at union meetings!) but in terms of suggesting that this may need “tight” structures in bad times is problematic. Depends on what is meant as “tight” often  means “isolated” (hence the sad sight of the left being more concerned with recruiting from each other by having the correct ideological positions on issues working class people are, usually rightly, uninterested in).

The history of syndicalist unions is marked by expansion in numbers as a result of struggle and then a decrease. My own experiences in a “normal” trade union reflects this as well, with membership participation being very variable. However, the fact remains that at least a union has a link to the experiences of working class life and is less likely to disappear up its own arse (a fate which befalls many a “revolutionary” vanguard). And, of course, these arguments against revolutionary unions also applies to soviets (workers’ councils). Whether the solution of the “vanguard party” works is debateable – the evidence is, I think, that this “cure” is worse than the disease.

The speaker suggested that syndicalists talk of the “active minority” (I corrected him by saying it was “Militiant Minority”) was basically talk of a party (a vanguard) and raised the discussion between Lenin and Jack Tanner on the need for the vanguard party at the Second Congress of the Communist International. However, the necessity of militants to organise themselves and give a lead should not be equated with vanguardism particularly given what else was said at that Congress by Zinoviev:

“Today, people like Kautsky come along and say that in Russia you do not have the dictatorship of the working class but the dictatorship of the party. They think this is a reproach against us. Not in the least! We have a dictatorship of the working class and that is precisely why we also have a dictatorship of the Communist Party. The dictatorship of the Communist Party is only a function, an attribute, an expression of the dictatorship of the working class... the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party.”

As the speaker failed to mention this, I felt I had to. I also noted that many syndicalists when faced with a choice between workers’ liberty and becoming a Bolshevik decided on the former. I hope, given the better understanding of Bolshevism in power accumulated over the last 80-plus years, that fewer these days would fail to see or ignore its theoretical and practical problems.

Interestingly, the speaker suggested that syndicalists were the first socialists to discuss how trade-unions should be organised and earliest attempts at sketching “workers rule.” Which, at face value, is a damning indictment of Marxism! In terms of economic transformation, the syndicalist idea that unions would organise production simply repeated ideas raised by anarchists in the IWMA. Kropotkin repeated this position after he joined the movement, for example in 1892 arguing:

“I should say that the chief point to be achieved now, is to make the Anarchist ideas permeate the great labour movement which is so rapidly growing in Europe and America… To be in the movement...  No one can underrate the importance of this labour movement for the coming revolution. It will be those agglomerations of wealth producers which will have to reorganise production on new social bases. They will have to organise the life of the nation and the use which it will make of the hitherto accumulated riches and means of production. They – the labourers, grouped together – not the politicians… History shows us that the Anarchists have now remained the sole bearers of the Socialist ideal which inspired the great movement of the International twenty years ago. All parties have deserted the red flag, in proportion as they felt themselves nearer to power. This red flag – the hope of the toiling and suffering masses – is now our inheritance.” (“Commemoration of the Chicago Martyrs”, Freedom, December 1892)

Note the date, years before the alleged entry of French anarchists into the unions in the mid-1890s which appears to be the “conventional wisdom” on syndicalism in academic and Marxist circles. And, as my recent biographical sketch indicates, Kropotkin had raised identical ideas in the late 1870s, early1880s and late 1880s (the gap being caused by his imprisonment in and then exile from France). The Charter of Amiens which defined French syndicalism and the union as a means of struggle and for organising production was written in 1906 (this idea being first raised in the IWMA in 1868 by Belgium libertarians before spreading to Spain, France, Italy, etc.)

The speaker did suggest that another limitation was that they had no theory of workers government (quite right too!) with an over emphasis on pre-figurative. I suggested this ignored Pouget’s novel, which argued that unions and previously un-organised workplaces would send delegates to the CGT conferences during the revolution. He also pointed to the example of expropriated workplaces in Argentina and how they are now being integrated back into the system (via nationalisation). True, I am sure, but somewhat irrelevant as the syndicalists did not argue for limited expropriation but rather expropriation as part of a social revolution. He also wrongly suggested that the syndicalists failed to recognise the need for insurrection – Pouget’s novel gives the lie to that.

So in terms of the leaflet I produced, I think it covered all the areas where the speaker would be weak or just plain wrong (see below). Some of the comments by members were of interest, with one admitting that the Marxist model of “civil action” had problems that had become manifest under Social Democracy and that anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin may have seen the potential for union struggle better than Marxists had. He also seemed to think I had argued that all unionism was anarchist inspired, like the New Unionism associated with the Great Dockers strike but I raised a point of clarification that this was not my intention.

This contributor also suggested that syndicalism “collapses” after 1917 as the soviets showed the way to best organise workers revolutionary struggle. He also said that Petrograd in 1905 showed the way forward and pointed to how Trotsky and Bolsheviks (eventually) saw the importance of soviets. Needless to say, I had to stress that syndicalism did not “collapse” in the post-1917 but was usually crushed (also, we should not forget the superior resources the Soviet state could provide as well as the mistaken belief it was a successful revolution). I pointed to the example of Italy, where the libertarians call for a united front was ignored by Marxists and this helped the rise of fascism. I also pointed out that the anarchists argued that the soviets would be the basis of the communes long before the Bolsheviks did, indeed during the 1905 revolution – and I also got the impression that my suggestion that Bolshevik support for soviets was lip-service was not appreciated!

Having to get back to work, I have leave abruptly. Before going I did stress that patronising comments about “missing heads” were not helpful and not very comradely. They did not set the right tone at all. I ended with a discussion of syndicalism today and the need for decentralisation and federalism. As a union member and rep I see the need for these to get effective action and I noted that it was no coincidence that the NUM, Britain’s most radical union, was based on these (and was not democratic centralist as proclaimed by an AWL member back at my debate in 2011). In short, syndicalism-plus – which the speaker said was his position although it is fair to say our positions on what the plus should be is probably radically different (not to mention ideas on appropriate forms of union structure).

Ultimately, I think the major problem with Leninist accounts of syndicalism is that an accurate account would mean that Leninist praise for syndicalism means praising Bakunin’s anarchism! Which, of course, raises more questions – questions which go all the way back to the IWMA if not the 1840s and Marx’s attacks on Proudhon.

As I said, the talk was okay. It covered the standard Leninist perspective on syndicalism reasonably well – but the problem is that this itself is flawed. I was, however, inspired by the claim that syndicalists were Marxists who “were missing their heads” and suggested that “Marxists are anarchists who do not know their history.” This best reflected by many radicals thinking the Bolshevik revolution was a success – if producing a state capitalist party dictatorship with six-months is considered a success, I hate to think what failure is!

Which is the real problem. Simply put, the history of Marxism (in all its forms) has been a disaster for the workers movement and socialism. This, I should note, was a constant theme of Kropotkin’s and it is hard not to disagree once you have a grasp of history. Still, I am optimistic insofar as many Leninists, if asked, would present a vision of revolution similar to the anarchist one – we just need to convince them that unlike the Bolshevik tradition, we mean it.

Hence my comment – most of the rank-and-file are close to anarchism and if they knew their history they would see that. Part of this process does involve anarchists getting better organised, so making the movement more appealing to join (which needs more people, so producing a “chicken-and-egg” situation we need to address). However, as I noted at the end of my talk at Housemans Bookshop, the quality of the movement is getting better – but there is more still to do!

And I must stress that however much we need to learn from history in order to not repeat it, we must not become slaves to it. Indeed, the major problem with the left is precisely that it is stuck in the past – specifically, 1917 in conditions of the quasi-feudal Tsarist Empire (at least if we were to regurgitate syndicalism it would be based on conditions closer to the ones we currently face, namely an advanced capitalist economy with a quasi-democratic political regime). This is a recurring problem and I still remember the frill of reading Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism 25 years ago, specifically the classic and still sadly all-too-relevant “Listen, Marxist!”:

“When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of the past? When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying? Marx, to his lasting credit, tried to do that in his own day; he tried to evoke a futuristic spirit in the revolutionary movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,’ he wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. ‘And when they seem to be engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the revolution of 1848 knew nothing better than to parody, in turn, 1789 and the tradition of 1793 to 1795....The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past....In order to arrive at its content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead. There the phrase went beyond the content, here the content goes beyond the phrase.’

“Is the problem any different today, as we approach the twenty-first century? Once again the dead are walking in our midst--ironically, draped in the name of Marx, the man who tried to bury the dead of the nineteenth century. So the revolution of our own day can do nothing better than parody, in turn, the October Revolution of 1917…

“This pursuit of security in the past, this attempt to find a haven in a fixed dogma and an organizational hierarchy as substitutes for creative thought and praxis is bitter evidence of how little many revolutionaries are capable of ‘revolutionizing themselves and things,’ much less of revolutionizing society as a whole.”

These days I now know that Proudhon (as in so much!) said it before Marx, in 1848:

“The democrats of ’93, conjuring up a republic with their highschool memories, after devouring one another, set the revolution back by half a century. True, Robespierre could scarcely be held to blame for the ambition and venality of Mirabeau, the hesitancy of La Fayette, the weakness of Péthion, the nonchalance of Vergniaud, the vices of Danton or the fanaticism of Marat. But Robespierre was a Spartan; it was he that triggered the counter-revolution. The democrats of 1848, building the republic on their parliamentary memories, have also set the revolution back by half a century. I am not pointing the finger at their patriotism, their good intentions, their disinterestedness. The sum total of their fault is that they are only imitators; they thought themselves statesmen because they were following the old models! So what is this queer preoccupation which, in time of revolution, bedazzles the most steadfast minds, and, when their burning aspirations carry them forward into the future, has them constantly harking back the past? How does it come about that the People, just when it is making the break with established institutions, takes another plunge and gets further immersed in tradition? Society does not repeat itself: but one would have thought it was walking backwards, like the rope-maker playing out his rope. Could it not turn its gaze in the direction in which it is going?

“This is not the place for a comprehensive exploration of this difficult problem which strikes at the very depths of our nature and relates directly to the most abstract principles of metaphysics. We shall restrict ourselves to stating, in accordance to the recent works of philosophy, that the phenomenon involved has its roots in the make-up of our understanding and can be explained by the law of the sameness of opposites, a law that lies at the bottom of creation, as well as of logic. That said, let us turn back to the issue at hand.

“In order to organise the future, a general rule confirmed by experience, the reformers always start out with their gaze fixed upon the past. Hence the contradiction forever discovered in their actions: hence also the immeasurable danger of revolutions.” (Property is Theft!, 308)

Which shows, in its way, the importance of historical research! So we need something like revolutionary syndicalism (i.e., a militant workplace based movement) and we can learn from it, we need to apply (and revise, as necessary) the principles to the here-and-now and not seek to repeat it. Contrasting the ideas of one set of revolutionaries (the Bolsheviks) one hundred ago to another (the syndicalists or, more accurately, an approximation of them!) does not cut the mustard. We need to look forward, as Proudhon stressed. However, I fear that any attempt to produce such a militant minority movement would be derailed by vanguardists getting involved and their (literal) boring from within would simply alienate people. It is no coincidence that Leninism has dominated the revolutionary left since 1920 and has nothing like the syndicalist revolt of 100 years ago appeared.

All this may seem ironic given the bulk of this blog and much of my work, particularly of late (my Proudhon anthology may strike many as being somewhat history-focused!) but it is essential to say. So, we need to be based on a clear understanding of history and learn the relevant lessons in order to inspire attempts to transcend what has come before. If you like, history should be the foundation upon which we can climb in order to see further rather than a structure within which we dwell.

And talking of historical texts, there is a good selection of syndicalist texts at libcom including the following short works by Emile Pouget:

Lastly, here is the leaflet I quickly produced for the meeting. I included a link to An Anarchist FAQ in the header and in the footer gave the url for The AWL Against Anarchism (Part 2). Not sure whether it will change any minds but perhaps it will encourage people to wonder why their party presents such (let me say) an incomplete account of syndicalism – and downplays its very obvious theoretical and historical links to anarchism.

I will get back to my critique of SWPer Blackledge on anarchism soon.

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

Notes on Syndicalism, Marxism and Anarchism

‘the anarchists . . . do not seek to constitute, and invite the working men 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.’ Peter Kropotkin, The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910

[… To claim] ‘the traditional assumption . . . that syndicalism was simply an outgrowth of anarchism would be an over-simplification.’ […] ignores not only the more obvious influence of Bakunin’s revolutionary anarchism but also Marx and Engels’ explicit rejection of key syndicalist ideas raised by libertarians in the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA).

[…] it is essential to note that ‘the necessity and desirability of class struggle’ […] is hardly uniquely Marxist as can be seen from Bakunin’s repeated references to both. It follows […] there is no need to invoke Marxism. […]

For Bakunin, like the rest of the revolutionary anarchist tradition, class conflict was inherent in capitalism for there was, ‘between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, an irreconcilable antagonism which results inevitably from their respective stations in life.’ He stressed that ‘war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is unavoidable’ and for the worker to ‘become strong’ he ‘must unite’ with other workers and form ‘the union of all local and national workers’ associations into a world-wide association, the great International Working-Men’s Association.’ Only ‘through practice and collective experience’ and ‘the progressive expansion and development of the economic struggle’ will the worker come ‘to recognise his true enemies: the privileged classes, including the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the nobility; and the State, which exists only to safeguard all the privileges of those classes.’ There was ‘but a single path, that of emancipation through practical action’ which ‘has only one meaning. It means workers’ solidarity in their struggle against the bosses. It means trades-unions, organisation, and the federation of resistance funds.’ Thus ‘unions create that conscious power without which no victory is possible’ while strikes ‘create, organise, and form a workers’ army, an army which is bound to break down the power of the bourgeoisie and the State, and lay the ground for a new world.’

[…] the need for workers ‘to take power’ themselves rather than relying on leaders, this was precisely Bakunin’s critique of Marx. For Bakunin, ‘the new social order’ would be attained ‘through the social (and therefore anti-political) organisation and power of the working masses of the cities and villages.’ This meant that anarchists do

‘not accept, even in the process of revolutionary transition, either constituent assemblies, provisional governments or so-called revolutionary dictatorships; because we are convinced that revolution is only sincere, honest and real in the hands of the masses, and that when it is concentrated in those of a few ruling individuals it inevitably and immediately becomes reaction.’

 Rather, the revolution ‘everywhere must be created by the people, and supreme control must always belong to the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations . . . organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation.’ This was because ‘every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves.’

[…] syndicalism’s ‘utter primacy of the working class as the sole agency of revolution that could liberate the whole of society.’ […] Bakunin also argued that the ‘initiative in the new movement will belong to the people . . . in Western Europe, to the city and factory workers – in Russia, Poland, and most of the Slavic countries, to the peasants.’ ‘Organise the city proletariat in the name of revolutionary Socialism’, he stressed repeatedly, and ‘unite it into one preparatory organisation together with the peasantry.’ However, ‘in order that the peasants rise up, it is absolutely necessary that the initiative in this revolutionary movement be taken up by the city workers . . . who combine in themselves the instincts, ideas, and conscious will of the Social Revolution.’

[…] Comparing [syndicalism] with the ideas of Bakunin we discover identical theories and practices:

‘Toilers count no longer on anyone but yourselves. Do not demoralise and paralyse your growing strength by being duped into alliances with bourgeois Radicalism . . . Abstain from all participation in bourgeois Radicalism and organise outside of it the forces of the proletariat. The bases of this organisation . . . are the workshops and the federation of workshops . . . instruments of struggle against the bourgeoisie, and their federation, not only national, but international . . . when the hour of revolution sounds, you will proclaim the liquidation of the State and of bourgeois society, anarchy, that is to say the true, frank people’s revolution.’

A similar vision was expounded in 1872 when the anarchists within the IWMA gathered at St. Imier. Rejecting political action, they argued that “the proletarians of every land should establish solidarity of revolutionary action outside of all bourgeois politicking.” They advocated the “Organisation of Labour Resistance” […] The strike was regarded “as a precious weapon in the struggle” […] These “ordinary economic struggles” prepare “the proletariat for the great and final revolutionary conquest” which will destroy “all class difference.” The future society would be created by the “proletariat itself, its trades bodies and the autonomous communes.”

 […] So while not all syndicalists considered themselves anarchists, syndicalism itself originally came from revolutionary anarchism which had advocated revolutionary unionism from the start. This was reflected both theoretically and practically, with anarchists producing revolutionary union movements in Spain, Mexico, America and elsewhere before the 1890s. […]

Marx and Engels against Syndicalism

[…] Marx attacked Bakunin for thinking that the ‘working classes must not occupy itself with politics. They must only organise themselves by trades-unions.’ Engels dismissed the general strike […] [and] they routinely mocked the notion […] that the International should both prefigure and become the future structure of a socialist society. For Bakunin, the ‘organisation of the trade sections and their representation by the Chambers of Labour . . . bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old world. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself.’ […] the ‘future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom upwards, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal.’ For Engels the ‘democratic republic’ was ‘the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (although the Paris Commune showed that ‘the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes.’)

If  ‘the essence of syndicalism was revolutionary action by unions aimed at establishing a society based upon unions’ […] then this is found in Bakunin, not in Marx and Engels. Indeed, they highlighted these aspects of Bakunin’s ideas – the centrality of union organisation and struggle (including the general strike) – and expressed their opposition to them. Moreover, as well as rejecting key syndicalist ideas, Marx and Engels also advocated what many revolutionary socialists […] came to consider as the ‘dead-end of electoral and parliamentary politics.’ The subsequent development of social democracy confirmed Bakunin’s fears on using elections rather than Marx’s hopes. So when […] when ‘many syndicalists dismissed’ political action, ‘rejecting’ electoral politics […] they adopted the same ‘narrow definition of political action’ as had Bakunin in the First International. It was precisely this ‘narrow definition of political action’ which Marx and Engels inflicted upon the IWMA against the libertarians.

[…] So if social democracy put the ‘emphasis on parliamentarism at the expense of the direct action of the workers’ it is fair to say that the focus that Marx and Engels placed on ‘political action’ helped this process immensely. […]

From: http://anarchism.pageabode. com/anarcho/anarchist-studies-syndicalism-anarchism-marxism

Syndicalism, Marxist Myth and Anarchist Reality

[...] the Bolsheviks [recognised] the necessity for insurrection, “[u]nlike the syndicalists, who identified the general strike with social revolution.” [...] Malatesta had raised [this] in 1907 at the International Anarchist Conference [...] Rudolf Rocker’s Anarcho-Syndicalism [...] states that by “direct action” anarcho-syndicalists included “the general strike” and “in particularly critical cases [...] armed resistance of the people for the protection of life and liberty.” [...] Pataud and Pouget’s 1909 syndicalist novel How We Shall Bring About the Revolution [...] write of how [...] the general strike “very soon changed into an insurrectional strike” and “the General Strikers occupied the centres of Government action, and expelled the representative of the State.” [...] To suggest syndicalism as such was blind to the necessity of insurrection is flawed.

[...] For syndicalists, “political questions were something that could be resolved by industrial action and direct action in the workplace”  How could they ignore political issues when [...] there were numerous state attacks on CGT strikes, mobilising troops and killing strikers? [...] syndicalist recognition of the need for insurrection fits into a general political perspective, one which is anti-political with regards bourgeois politics and political activities but which recognises the need to analyse and fight the state and other aspects of capitalism [...]

[...] when Bakunin argued against Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” he did not deny the need to defend a revolution. […] “[…] communes will have to reorganise themselves along revolutionary lines… […] to defend the revolution […] form a communal militia. But no commune can defend itself in isolation […] radiate revolution outward, to raise all of its neighbouring communes in revolt… and to federate with them for common defence.”

The same can be said of syndicalists. Pataud and Pouget write of how the unions formed “bands” to “watch over the security of the committees” and “sought to arm themselves.” Indeed, there is a chapter (XX) entitled “The Arming of the People” in which the people “arm themselves” in order to “counterbalance the military and other forces” which “held them under the yoke.” [...] These “Syndicalist battalions were not a force external to the people. They were the people themselves” who “had the common-sense to arm themselves in order to protect their conquered liberty.” [...] the Spanish CNT’s 1936 resolution on Libertarian Communism [had a] section entitled “Defence of the Revolution” [...]

[...] leading Bolsheviks [...] [like] Zinoviev […] celebrated the reality of Bolshevik dictatorship at the Second Congress of the Comintern [in 1920] […]

“Today, people like Kautsky come along and say that in Russia you do not have the dictatorship of the working class but the dictatorship of the party. They think this is a reproach against us. Not in the least! We have a dictatorship of the working class and that is precisely why we also have a dictatorship of the Communist Party. The dictatorship of the Communist Party is only a function, an attribute, an expression of the dictatorship of the working class... the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party.”

[...] As far as critiques of syndicalism go, […] those seeking a real one are best served by reading [Errico] Malatesta’s speech at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress […] every valid aspect of the Leninist critique of syndicalism […] 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. [...]

From: http://anarchism.pageabode.com/a narcho/syndicalism-marxist-myth-anarchist-reality


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