II. TRADE UNION REVOLUTIONISM
XIV. FRENCH SYNDICALISM
SYNDICALISM first arose neither in England nor in the United States. For Syndicalism (from the French word syndicat or union) stands for a revolutionary movement that regards the trade unions alone as the proper vehicles for the revolution. Neither in England nor in this country were the organized trade union workers in the nineteenth century revolutionary, in England because they had been bribed into passivity through reform, in America because they had not yet matured politically as a class. Whereas the English believed in the harmonization of the classes, at the expense of the colonials, the Americans believed there was no class struggle at all. Such a movement as Syndicalism could first arise only in France, Italy, Spain, and in similar European countries where Anarchism had flourished and where the revolutionary spirit was still alive.
Bound together with the industrial development of the country, trade unions developed very tardily in France. All workers’ associations had been looked upon traditionally with the greatest hostility. Under Napoleon I, workers had been required to carry certificates and were always under strict surveillance. It was only under the “Social Emperor,” Napoleon III, that in 1868 organizations of workers were tolerated. Yet it was through the instrumentality of Napoleon’s sending a delegation of workers to England to the London Exhibition of 1862 that the First International had been organized and in the beginning had as its support the French Proudhonist workers, the Mutualists. While these workers were at odds with Proudhon on the question of unionism, they had succeeded in combining Proudhon’s general conceptions and co-operative ideas with the necessity for the organization of trade unions as well.
Thus, “The program of the mutuellistes was a peaceful change in social relations by which the idea of justice—conceived as reciprocity or mutuality of services—should be realized. The means advocated were education and the organization of mutual aid societies, of mutual insurance companies, of syndicates, of co-operative societies and the like. Much importance was attached to the organizations of mutual credit societies and of popular banks. It was hoped that with the help of cheap credit the means of production would be put at the disposal of all and that co-operative societies of production could then be organized in large numbers. The mutuellistes emphasized the idea that the social emancipation of the workingmen must be the work of the workingmen themselves. They were opposed to state intervention. Their ideal was a decentralized economic society based upon a new principle of right—the principle of mutuality—which was the idea of the working class.” (*1)
So, whereas the combination of unions and co-operatives had arisen in England as a result of utopian Socialism and Liberalism, this condition was part of the Anarchist tradition in France. (*2) These ideas of peaceful growth into a new social order were rudely shattered by the strikers in Paris in 1867, in support of whom the First International organized an international demonstration and for whom it collected funds from all its sections. Even the Proudhonists themselves, generally against strikes, were forced to go along and to see the First International taken out of their hands by Marx, and a declaration adopted favoring the general strike in case of war. All of these tendencies were greatly strengthened in the last two years of Napoleon III’s regime and culminated in the Paris Commune of 1871.
The Paris Commune, like a tremendous social physic, purged the working class of France of much decayed matter that had remained within it. It cleared away the old illusions that the French bourgeoisie would give up power peacefully, by means of mutual aid associations and such puerilities. Furthermore, it rid the proletariat, now thoroughly conscious of the fact that it and it alone had to play the leading role in future revolutions, of any idea that at a mere blowing of the trumpets Jericho would fall, that the State could be destroyed by a minority group planning the coup d’e’tat. Both Bakuninism and Blanquism ended their careers with the Paris insurrection. Two things had become amply clear: first, that the majority of the working class of the entire country had to be mobilized and trained for leadership in the movement; second, that not class collaboration but ruthless class struggle alone could usher in the new world.
But the workers were terribly defeated temporarily. They were forced to retreat, nursing their wounds as best they could. Knowing well that insurrection was impossible for years to come, they began the preliminary organization work all over again. If the animosity and hostility of the workers to the ruling bourgeois cliques did not lead to political struggles of fundamental importance, they led at least to economic struggles of secondary value. To the advanced proletariat of France, who could never forget that the main task was the overthrow of the capitalist State, each strike for economic purposes against even a limited number of employers was but part of a strategic plan of the workers. By means of this guerilla warfare they were to reorganize their ranks, to raise again their morale, to remain temporarily on the defensive only to pass to the offensive later on, to weary the enemy by constant blows, at the same time, in short, militant battles, testing and steeling again the mighty forces for the social revolution.
Not that these views were openly expressed by the mass of workers. On the contrary, independent of any revolutionary group and driven by the pressing problems of their lives in the shops, the workers, immediately after the Commune, could take only the first timid steps in the organization of craft unions which were still illegal under the existing constitution. In fact, reminiscent of the later Russian Czaristic attempt to form “police unions,” the trade unions of France first began to rise under the leadership of one Berberet, who thought strikes were criminal revolutionary acts and who organized his unions in order to check these subversive tendencies. French trade unionism thus began as a sort of channelization of the workers by a frightened bourgeoisie that wanted to head off the inevitable revolution. Soon, however, Berberet, unable to control the situation, faded from the picture. By 1876, with a mild and opportunist platform, these craft unions were able to organize the first congress of the National Federation of Labor. At once the revolutionary Socialists and Anarchists sprang to the opportunity and started assiduously to work from within these unions to revolutionize them.
Both Socialists and Anarchists had learned certain things from the Paris Commune. The Anarchists turned from their old classless position to enter the ranks of the workers. They dropped their tactics of the coup d’etat and, becoming “possibilist,” that is, trying in a period of defeat to take advantage “as much as possible” of the opportunities offered in the Third Republic, they changed their propaganda activities to boring from within the unions. If the workers had not been able to seize State power, they had been able at least to win the right to organize unions; if they could not revert to insurrection, they could turn to strikes.
Similarly, among the Socialists there had been formed two wings. One, organized by Brousse, advocated immediate reforms and the gradual establishment of a new social order through reforms. The other wing, led by Guesde, took the position that not reforms but revolution only must be agitated for, but that this revolution could come about only through education and propaganda.
In regard to their trade union policies, these two groups were at odds as to the role of the party and of the trade union. The Broussists wanted to leave the unions alone, to work within them but not to control them. The Guesdists, on their side, urged the necessity of winning the unions, as revolutionary reserves, to Socialism. Thus within the trade unions there developed four mutually hostile groups: the Anarchists, the State-Socialist parliamentarian Broussists, the Guesdists, and those who were “pure and simple” trade unionists. At first the victory went to the Guesdists in 1879; this soon led to a split within the National Federation of Labor in 1880, and the Moderates withdrew from the Congress. However, “pure and simpleism” could find no place in revolutionary France; the malcontents were not able to win over the workers from the program calling for a fight against all parliamentary actions and for the abolition of the capitalist State. “Pure and simpleism” soon died away. With various vicissitudes, the Guesdists were able to hold their control of the National Federation of Labor until its end.
In the meantime, in 1887, the cities of France, led by Paris, had organized their Bourses du Travail (Labor Exchanges). These bourses were supported by the municipalities as meeting-places for the workers. The bourse existed as an unemployment center and sort of club. The local unions had their offices there. Libraries, reading rooms, classes, opportunities for education and information of all sorts, encouraged the gatherings of the workers in these club rooms. No doubt, like the first attempt of Berberet, this effort on the part of the municipalities to bring together all the local unions was for the purpose of checking up and controlling the workers. But again these plans of the police and of the authorities were rendered futile by the workers themselves. All revolutionary groups also hastened to work within the bourses.
Within the local syndicates and bourses, the Allemanists, a split-off from the Broussists (who in turn had broken from the Guesdists in 1887 and had organized their own party), were very strong; they combined with the Anarchists to form the National Federation of Bourses in 1892. Thus there were now two federations, one organized vertically, composed of the national unions of a given trade and craft, the other horizontally, by cities and towns, embracing all of the local unions of a particular place and binding them together, regardless of trade and craft. In one sense the two federations were supplementary, in another sense, mutually antagonistic. Each group had different functions, the workers having separate problems of a national scale both in their trade and industry, and also general local problems affecting all occupations equally. Naturally enough, it was in the body organized by national trades and crafts that the Socialists were in power; just as naturally, in the local municipalities, where workers felt themselves Parisians or Lyonnais rather than textile workers or shoe workers, the Anarchists were very strong and, together with the Allemanists, wielded control.
By this time the cities had abandoned the practice of paying for the halls for revolutionaries. In a series of raids in 1893 they attempted to destroy the bourses, but instead of destroying them, they only hastened the unification, in 1895, of both national bodies into one, the Confederation General du Travail, “C.G.T.” or General Federation of Labor. In the fusion, the Guesdists were defeated while the Allemanists, and above all the Anarchists, won the day. From then on to the aftermath of the World War, the C.G.T. was colored officially with an Anarchist tendency that gave a theory and program to the trade unions and developed into Anarcho-Syndicalism.
We have noted that after the Paris Commune the workers had been forced to turn to defensive movements, to engage in daily struggles against their particular employers to maintain their standard of living. Thus, trade and craft unions had become organized. Under the circumstances, this represented a turn from revolution to reform. The workers had need to recuperate. Also, with the advance of French imperialism and the seizure of vast colonial territories in Asia and Africa, the French capitalists were enabled to give larger crumbs to the workers and to the middle classes and could tolerate craft unions on a strictly reformist base.
These craft unions developed in a country which had little heavy industry and which was predominantly agrarian. There being no decisive iron or coal industries, the transportation and textile industries took the lead in a land where the factories were still small and where the world subdivision of labor had left to the French the manufacture of fine and luxury products (silks, style forms, perfumes, jewelry, furs, wines, food products of a special nature, etc.). With such a proletariat, not able to go beyond craft or trade unionism, whatever revolution flourished could easily be provided by the Communist-Anarchists. At the same time, however, a radical change took place in the program of these Communist-Anarchists; they began to affirm that, not the Anarchist conspiracy nor the co-operative, but the union alone was to accomplish the revolution. (*3)
While the French proletariat ardently desired the revolution and foresaw its inevitable necessity, it also appreciated the fact that, after its great defeat, it was too weak to accomplish it. In spite of French traditions, the revolutionary center of gravity shifted to Germany. All that remained of revolution in France theoretically was the wish; all that could be accomplished in fact was reform. The skilled workers, composing the trade unions in France, were only too ready to conceal their reformism in practice by means of revolutionary phrases and wishes. Naturally, it was Anarchism that, connecting itself with these skilled workers and operating in an environment of petty economy in city and country where individual taste, style, and skill still counted, should furnish these phrases, while the unions themselves tried to get as much as they could for their members but in actual practice denied the revolution.
Unlike the British and German trade unions, which eventually embraced a large section of the working class, including considerable numbers of unskilled laborers, the French, like the American trade unions, embraced but a small portion of the workers, generally the skilled. Both American and French unions operated as craft unions on the organizational principle of federalism, loose organizational control, and no strict centralization. In America, this federalism or minimum authority coincided with the strictures of Liberalism; in France, with the anti-authoritarianism of the Anarchists. Both American and French unions believed in direct action of the trade unions to obtain results, whether reforms or revolution.
The late nineteenth century French proletarians, even in defeat, could not lose their inherent revolutionism. The contradictory forces of capitalism and its law of unequal development, had converged in France in such a manner that although that country had not developed to any appreciable extent economically, it had yet achieved considerable development politically. It was in France that class struggles had been fought out in their sharpest forms. The bloody events from 1789 to 1871 had not drenched the soil of France in vain.
The theories of French Anarcho-Syndicalism were further strengthened by the corruption of French Socialism. (*4) In no other country were parliamentary cretinism and opportunistic illusions so crassly portrayed as in France. As with other political manifestations in France, Socialist corruption took on classically clear forms. When the workers saw the opportunist “Socialist” Millerand actually sitting in the cabinet with the “butcher of the Paris Commune,” General Gallafet, when they experienced the scandal of the “Socialist” Briand’s actually breaking the railwaymen’s strike by calling the workers to the colors and, as soldiers, ordering them to run the trains, etc., Anarcho-Syndicalism became strengthened in its critique, since these actions of the reformists showed decisively that the Socialists were traitors. Besides, the frequent splits that occurred among the Socialists seemed to prove that political parties with their theoretical bickerings and internecine fights were not comparable to the broad unions where all could join and where breaks did not occur on so-called “profound” theoretical questions of a future revolution. In other words, thanks to the crimes of French Socialism, the syndicats of French labor were driven still more into the ranks of “practical” Anarchism.
The organized syndicats were but a minor part of the population in France; how, then, could this minority accomplish the revolution? The Anarcho-Syndicalists could answer this question. Had they not always believed in the principle of “militant minority” liberating all humanity? The syndicats, in truth, were this militant minority. Certainly it is true that revolutions can be inaugurated and brought to success even though but a minority of the working class is organized into trade unions. Indeed, in any case it might be absolutely fatal to wait until the majority of the proletariat should become good dues-paying members. How satisfying this theory must have been to the craft unionists who in this way justified their lack of effort to include within their midst the mass of poorly paid workers!
Because of this theory by which the trade unions were given the role of the “militant minority,” the Anarcho-Syndicalists fell into a fatal error. They gave to the trade union essentially an offensive, rather than defensive, character; they conceived of the union as an organ to fight the State rather than the employers, as a group embracing a revolutionary minority rather than the broad masses of workers as a whole. In other words, the Anarcho-Syndicalists conceived of a union as the revolutionary Marxist conceived of a political party. In trying to transform the union into a vanguard political party, the Anarcho-Syndicalists perforce had to fail both as party and as union builders. If they tried to construct a regular union, their revolutionism remained in fact mere phrases, whether these phrases were repeated in ritual fashion or carefully pushed into the background. If they attempted actively to put forward their revolutionary minority principles, they destroyed the union and made of it an Anarchist propaganda sect.
How could the syndicats liberate humanity? The Anarcho-Syndicalist answered: “Only by force, by the direct action of the masses.” (*5) The war against the capitalists was an unceasing one. The forces to be used could be in the form either of sabotage or of the strike, the highest form of which was the general strike with “folded arms.”
Sabotage is a truly classic expression of Anarcho-Syndicalism. (*6) It means the clandestine destruction of the forces of the ruling class and their hindrance in every possible manner. It is considered a form of the guerilla warfare of the exploited against their exploiters. Sabotage may take many guises. It may be the destruction of machinery and property; for example, the placing of spikes in logs so as to disable saw mills. It may take the form of telling the public that a given restaurateur, against whom there is a strike, is serving unsanitary food to his unsuspecting public. Sometimes it means idling on the job by the individual worker. Sabotage corresponds in the trade union field to the individual terror of the Bakuninist Anarchists of the “deed” in the political field. It is a limited and modified form of the individual terror of the early Anarchists, sabotage being in the main directed at the property of the employer rather than at the life of the political ruler. In both cases it generally substitutes individual action for mass action. In the trade union field it is particularly suited to the skilled worker.
The guerilla warfare concept of the trade union Anarchists, coupled with their general irresponsibility, led them to the theory that no strike could be lost, since each strike meant so much more training for the workers. That workers could be wearied out and utterly demoralized by reckless, constant, guerilla warfare strikes, or that workers entered into strikes to win and into unions to improve their economic lot, never forcibly struck the Anarchists. According to the French Syndicalists, strikes would be won by militancy and not by union treasuries. Strikes should be called often and should be sharp and short. Negotiations with employers must be minimized. Contracts were unnecessary since only the strength of the respective classes was the guarantee that classes so inimical to each other as labor and capital would live up to any truce effected. Differing from the American Federation of Labor and craft unions generally, the French Syndicalists built their unions upon the basis of low dues and low initiation fees.
The Anarcho-Syndicalist placed his main reliance on the general strike. At first he conceived this general strike as one to be conducted “with folded arms.” (*7) Not the ballot, but persistent pressure would bring the rulers to terms. In connection with this, two fundamental points must be stressed.
First, the strike was to be a general strike, that is, not against a particular set of employers, but against all employers as a class. It therefore had to be directed against the State, which is the executive and general organ of the employers as a class; thus it became a political strike, a strike with political rather than with economic demands and motives. It was a strike for freedom, for liberation, for the abolition of the State and the master class.
This idea of the general strike meant that the workers must be prepared to strike, not only for their own petty and immediate material interests, but in solidarity with others for an ideal. The great emphasis laid upon solidarity and revolutionary ideals in Syndicalism naturally went hand in hand with the program of revolution through the general strike.
The second fundamental point was that the general strike was to be one conducted “with folded arms.” In short, it was understood as a demonstration of force without violence, for so thoroughly would the State be paralyzed that its armed forces would be entirely useless and would yield without the necessity of a bloody civil war. Such a peaceful general strike was the sole prospect envisaged by the skilled workers. It was the same sort of utopia about which the skilled Socialist workers in other countries were dreaming. Both wanted a peaceful rule, no blood spilt, nothing “nasty.” One proposed to take power through the peaceful ballot, the other through the peaceful strike.
This theory of the general political strike as a solution to all revolutionary problems resulted in several fatal errors being made by the Anarcho-Syndicalists. Since the Anarchists believed the time was always ripe for the overthrow of the State, a strong tendency existed to abuse the general strike, to call the workers out in solidarity and in sympathy, again and again. This often resulted in abortive attempts or repeated efforts that wearied and exhausted the masses and only threw the country into a chaos which brought all the middle elements to the side of reaction. The unfolding of the present revolution in Spain has brought to light many illustrations of this adventurism.
The attempt of the workers to break the State by the negative action of ceasing work for private employers sometimes resulted only in the State’s or reactionary forces’ marching into the industry in question and taking charge themselves. This is precisely what happened in Italy in 1922, the time of the march by the Fascists on Rome. The general strike on the railroads not having been entirely successful, the evacuation by all the militant workers of the key railway posts only facilitated the march on Rome and the seizure of power by the Fascists.
The steady emphasis on strikes for solidarity and for political purposes tended to transform the union into an organ for revolution in which every member was presumed to be a revolutionist. But this meant that the broad masses who entered unions, not for revolution, but for the day-to-day struggle, soon refused to remain in such revolutionary bodies or to abide by their policies. The transformation of the unions into the main organs for the revolution was likely to result in the collapse of the unions themselves.
The general strike idea of Anarcho-Syndicalism was developed in a period of political reaction flowing from the great rise of European and French capitalism at the time. No organization of the workers of any importance sincerely believed that the proletarian insurrection was the immediate order of the day. Indeed, the whole tendency of the Anarcho-Syndicalists was to substitute the practical general strike for the impracticable barricades. To them the period for street barricade fighting was ended. The general strike was the only possible form of revolution; it was but the climactic development of labor’s most ordinary weapon—the strike.
During a general strike it was not necessary to control everyone since, owing to the division of labor in society, the stopping of a few wheels of industry must stop all. It was argued further that such a general strike did not need money support, but was more apt to succeed in a business crisis than in a period of prosperity. Nor was much sacrifice or heroism involved, for such a strike could start lawfully, did not expose any individual to great danger, and was even aided by the cowardice of those who stayed at home. The general strike would be able to throttle the economic life of the whole nation, for the quiet districts could not send food to the districts where the strike was active. Soldiers could not be concentrated at every point, since the strike was general and to do so would greatly disperse the army. (*8)
Developing still further their idea of strikes without undue social disorder and conflict, some of the Syndicalists also proposed, as an alternative method to the general strike, special strikes for shorter and shorter hours, until the capitalists finally lost all of their profits. Thus, just as some Socialists thought that Socialism could come by gradual legislative reforms, some Syndicalists conceived the end of capitalism as brought about by gradually intensified strikes and shortened hours of labor. Both were utopian reformists.
Against this concept of the general strike with folded arms, the French Guesdist Socialists carried on a bitter struggle. They pointed out that such a peaceful general strike was an illusion and that violence was inevitable. Carried into practice, the general strike could lead only to insurrection and social revolution. France was not as yet ready for insurrection; the social revolution could be brought about not by economic groups, but only by political organizations. Eventually the realization spread that the general strike could not be peaceful, but by the twentieth century the French workers had fully recuperated from the effects of the Paris Commune and again were ready for the struggle. Thus they reaffirmed their faith in the general strike, regardless of its new meaning to them. Nevertheless, the whole procedure, in all its implications, was neither clearly nor carefully worked out.
A good illustration of the immaturity and amateurishness of these Syndicalists is given in the novel written by two prominent Syndicalists, E. Pataud and E. Pouget: How We Shall Bring About the Revolution. The scene opens with strikes for immediate demands; these are put down with great bloodshed by government troops. In order to force the government to punish those responsible for the massacres, a general political strike is ordered and breaks out suddenly. By means of sabotage, and after boycotting the quarters of the rich and wearying the troops, the workers pass to the offensive, organize the distribution of food, and make a great drive for members. Then the workers seize the factories, return to work, and the State is abolished. The trade unions soon begin to run the factories and industries, and labor-notes are issued instead of money. The revolt spreads to the countryside and the slogan, “Land to the peasants,” is carried out through the arming of the people and the formation of “Syndicalist battalions.” When foreign intervention arrives, the answer to the intruder is not the combat of the Red Army, but the annihilating use of the mysterious death rays which have just been invented and which destroy the invaders. The authors conclude their utopian description with the statement: “The day when it should become known that a handful of determined men could successfully oppose the armed crossing of a frontier---that day, public opinion would insist upon the suppression of standing armies.” (*9) It seems, then, that the victory of the proletariat and the general strike depends upon the advent of death rays not yet invented!
Aside from the charming utopias pictured by revolutionary Syndicalists, Pataud and Pouget do raise several important questions pertaining to the program of Syndicalism. Will the general strike come suddenly or after due preparation? Will it evolve from economic strikes or will it be political from the start? Are trade unions the organs of combat in civil war? Are they the instruments to organize the peasantry and the general population?
It was the opinion of Jean Jaur’es, the leader of the United Socialist Party, formed in 1904-1905, when all Socialist groups got together into one organization, that the Socialists should not fight the idea of the general strike but rather should advocate it. However, he believed that the working class had to be convinced of the importance of the object of the strike, the public had to be made sympathetic, and the strike must not be made a mask for violence. The best way was to call the general strike as an extension of the partial economic strike which was the normal action of the proletariat. Jean Jaur’es thought that the Anarcho-Syndicalists wanted to trick the workers into revolution by starting with a general strike for economic demands and then attempting the coup d’e’tat. A general strike for economic demands must not become side-tracked into an attempt at social revolution. Social revolution meant violence and civil war and for this the workers had to be prepared adequately. In the opinion of Jaur’es, the general strike had a great function in hastening the social revolution and providing a “revolutionary index.” (*10)
There is no doubt that the warnings of Jaur’es were well taken in the light of the French situation and the policies of the Anarcho-Syndicalists. But, as a matter of fact, the great general strikes that were attempted in Europe from the start had political objectives and not economic ones. Nor were they always prepared for adequately. The great general strikes in Belgium in 1893, 1902, 1913 were all for the purpose of extending the franchise, as was the strike in Sweden in 1902. The Russian general strikes of 1905 attempted to overthrow the Czar. The Barcelona general strike of 1909 aimed to stop the Spanish-Moroccan War. In other cases, as in Italy, in 1904, the general strike resulted from the use of the military in savagely shooting down strikers engaged in economic and partial strikes. According to Kautsky, then speaking as a revolutionary socialist, “The political general strike succeeds more frequently if it be sudden and unexpected, brought about spontaneously by some plainly outrageous act of the bourgeois government.” (*11)
The general strike, in and of itself, is no infallible weapon for revolution. In England and locally in the United States, it has been used for purely economic aims. Under the domination of the Social-Democrats of the Second International, it was used to obtain merely Liberal political results, such as the extension of democracy to embrace the mass of workers. To Eduard Bernstein the general strike had been a substitute for the barricades and revolution. Later, the Socialists actually used the general strike as a weapon against the revolution. In 1918-1919 the German Majority Socialists actually sidetracked the proletarian revolution by means of a general strike which they were in a position to call.
A French professor, George Sorel, who attached himself to the Syndicalist movement, tried to develop a fundamental line of cleavage between the Syndicalist idea of the general strike and that of the Socialists. With an eye to the type of strikes that had been called by the socialists in Belgium, Sweden, and other countries, Sorel pointed out that such political general strikes did not presuppose class war, but were often called for purely Liberal purposes merely to assure that the Liberals would take power and get certain posts in the government.
Sorel did not like the Socialist general strikes for other reasons. According to him, such strikes were led not by the syndicats themselves but by a committee of a political party. Also, they were called, not in order to institute a new economic order, but to overthrow the old governmental regime. Thus they were destructive, not constructive strikes. Such general strikes were hand in hand with plans for some utopia totally disconnected with real factory relations. Sorel, on the other hand, wanted no interference by political parties. The syndicats must embrace the entire working class and needed no other groups. The strikes were to take over industry and were to be guided, not by some intellectuals who condescended to think for the working class with blue-prints of the future, but by the masses dominated by their visceral sensations who made action an end in and of itself.
Sorel did not hesitate to animadvert on the Russian general strike of 1905 which he denounced as a political move leading to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat to which he was bitterly opposed. He advocated a Syndicalist strike where the workers would be free, without leaders, and which would leave the State entirely alone. (*12) Fortunately for the proletariat, Sorel had very little influence among the actual Syndicalist membership.
As a matter of fact, the general strike reached its greatest force as a revolutionary weapon only when used by the Russian Communists. To the Communists the general strike was the prelude to the insurrection itself and led directly to the seizure of power. As Trotsky put it: “The revolutionary effect of the political mass strike consists in the fact that it disorganizes the authority of the State. The greater and more general the anarchy produced, the nearer to victory is the strike.” (*13)
Of course, no really effective national general strike can fail to be of a political and revolutionary character. If such strikes remained limited to economic objectives it was because they were quickly called off before their full effects were felt by the social order. If the general strike at any time served to defend capitalism, it was because it was supplemented by other actions which crushed the militant sections of the working class and enabled the strikes to be called off before the masses could really storm the streets and demonstrate their true feelings and interests. In spite of the many abuses of the general strike, once it is waged in a revolutionary manner, history has cleared all doubt of its great power and overwhelming force.
Within the Socialist International, a severe fight occurred over the question of the general strike to prevent war. The French were ardently in favor of such a general strike; the Germans were as vehemently opposed. The debates were extraordinarily interesting in the light of the actions of the various parties in the World War. Did the Germans feel that, because the French were in reality poorly organized in their trade-unions compared with the Germans, the French capitalists would not be stopped from invading Germany? Could it be that the Germans did not wish to paralyze the government of the Kaiser, but only to reform it?
On the other hand, the greatest fear on the part of the German workers was that barbaric Russia would sweep over them from the East. There was no possibility of the Russian masses’ adopting the general strike at the outbreak of the war. Thus the question arose: Would not the general strike aid the Czar to crush German Socialism? And did not the French nationalists, whose ally the Czar was, count on effecting just this result? Perhaps all of these considerations played a part. At any rate, when the war broke out, nowhere was the general strike called.
On the whole, Syndicalisms in the other Latin countries resembled their prototype in France. Of especial importance is Spanish Syndicalism, which, flowering later in the twentieth century, took on quite different characteristics. In France, each local trade-union had had full autonomy, both in regard to its respective national union and in respect to the general labor body of its vicinity. It was only in 1906 at the Amiens Congress that the French C. G. T. had decreed that in the future only industrial federations and no special craft groups would be allowed, although it did not exclude the then-existing craft organizations. In Spain, on the other hand, the local unions were local industrial unions and were connected with local central bodies which had authority over them. In this respect the federalist tendency of the French was modified by the Spanish in an authoritarian direction, although it was true that the local union did not feel itself bound by its national union but rather by its local trade union center. In Spain, while these local centers were authoritative bodies, they enjoyed a great autonomy of action and independence from control from above.
These divergences of Spanish Syndicalism as compared with the French very easily can be traced to the peculiar Spanish conditions. In Spain, not the skilled alone but the unskilled workers also have flooded the unions. For this reason the Anarcho-Syndicalism which still prevails has been forced to take somewhat of an intermediate form between federalism and authoritarianism. On the other hand, the backward conditions of Spanish capitalism have resulted in the development of a strong separatism in certain localities.
Since the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution in 1930, the idea of federalism has received further set-backs. Strong tendencies for centralized national industrial unions and an authoritative general national center have arisen and have been endorsed by several Syndicalist congresses. During the course of the Spanish Revolution there have also occurred immensely powerful general strikes which, far from being “with folded arms,” have often resulted in bloody pitched battles.
After the Spanish Republic was established in 1931, the Anarcho-Syndicalists fervently believed that they could now overthrow the capitalist State and introduce a new social order. However, these elements sadly miscalculated their strength. In spite of their revolutionary ideals, they were able only to overthrow the old regime and to prevent its reconstitution; they were not able to go forward to the constructive tasks of setting up the rule of the workers. These old-fashioned movements were adequate to accomplish the negative and critical tasks of overthrowing an antiquated monarchy; they were totally ineffective in dealing with a modern bourgeois republic.
As the Spanish Revolution progressed, however, there was set up what in fact amounted to a dual power. True, there were as yet no soviets, but the masses respected the authority of the unions and the other revolutionary organizations, and the government was forced at times to yield to the opinions of these mass organizations on vital questions. The Anarcho-Syndicalists, however, did not know how to administer their power. With their Bakuninist idealism, they did not appreciate the necessity for preparing for revolt by building powerful organizations in all discontented strata of the population. They attempted one adventure after another, believing that the State could be abolished and all oppression ended by one blow struck by a militant minority. After each failure of these workers, the toilers lost some of their strength, the reaction picked up its head, the government consolidated its position. All that the Anarcho-Syndicalists could accomplish was to wear out the revolutionary forces in ill-prepared battles and in fruitless adventures; objectively, they strengthened reaction.
As the failure of the policy of the Anarchists controlling the unions became apparent to the Spanish workers, a split occurred among the Syndicalists, some breaking from Anarchism and urging the formation of centralized authoritarian bodies which would lead to Dictatorship of the Proletariat. These Syndicalists, however, agreed with the Anarchists in boycotting the State, in ignoring the work of the political parties, in refusing to reach the widest strata of the population. In the beginning of the Revolution, the million organized Spanish workmen had been divided somewhat as follows: about two hundred thousand were in the General Labor Union controlled by the Socialists, and about eight hundred thousand were under the control of the C.N.T. (National Confederation of Labor). As the Anarcho-Syndicalists became discredited, however, the situation was reversed and the majority of the workers joined the Socialist union center. (*14)
The fatal influence of the Anarchist in the Spanish Syndicalist movement was amply demonstrated in the 1934 insurrection in the Asturias region. In this insurrection the Anarcho-Syndicalist center behaved in truly shameful fashion. Like the Anarchist Malatesta in Italy, the Anarcho-Syndicalists actually refused to join the united front of Socialists, Communists, and the rival trade union center—the General Labor Union controlled by the Socialists---unless this united front would guarantee in advance that, should the civil war be successful against Fascism and reaction, no new central power would be set up by the workers. Because the other elements refused to pledge themselves in advance not to set up a proletarian dictatorship, the Anarcho-Syndicalists in most important sections of Spain stood aside from the battle and watched passively while their fellow workers were wounded and killed by the thousands.
The Asturias insurrection gave the final blow reducing the Anarchist and Anarcho-Syndicalist movements in Spain to secondary importance and forcing them to consider a complete change in their line on pain of extinction. When, in the summer of 1936, the present Fascist-monarchist rebellion broke out in all its fury, these Anarcho-Syndicalists did not hesitate to run to the aid of the government. They could not endorse the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but they could give their lives for the capitalist State. (*15)
Syndicalism in Italy also took a slightly different direction from that in France. Since not the Anarchists but the Socialists were strong in the big cities and industrial centers of the North, the General Confederation of Labor that had been organized in 1906, while Syndicalistic, did not break away from the Socialist Party, and took a far more authoritarian and centralized position. This was not always an advance for the proletariat, as was evidenced by two tendencies in the Italian movement. The first was the tendency on the part of the national trade union center to assume an absolutely controlling voice in all labor disputes, no affiliated federation being authorized to declare a strike or to adopt any strike tactics without referring the question to the central body. In many instances this hampered the militancy of the workers in conducting partial and local strikes. At the same time, all discussion of the general strike was deferred for ten years by the Modena Congress.
The second false tendency was the great emphasis on the formation of producers’ co-operatives, rather in the spirit of Mazzini, by which the illusion was created that through the co-operatives the workers could actually buy out capitalism and establish the new social order peacefully. This was contrary to French Syndicalism where propagandists were constantly warning the workers against the illusions created by co-operative societies.
It was no wonder, then, that in 1912 a split took place within the Italian Syndicalist movement, the split widening in the direction of French Syndicalism and in revolt against the stifling hand of the opportunist bureaucracy developing in the trade unions in Italy.
Syndicalism never flourished in Germany. The ardent need for struggle against the decadent federalism of the petty principalities, the fact that the unions were built up by socialists, and the fact that Germany rapidly was becoming industrialized with a huge and modern proletariat, highly regimented and disciplined, made it impossible for Anarcho-Syndicalism or any other kind of Syndicalism to prevail. Besides, the German proletariat was advanced enough to know, under the blows of the Kaiser-Junkerdom then extant, that the main task was to overthrow the capitalist State, and that this could be done only by the building up of authoritarian proletarian centers capable of working secretly in periods of illegality as well as openly through mass organizations. As Germany was no place for Anarchism, it could be no place for Anarcho-Syndicalism.
1. L. Levine [Lorwin]: The Labor Movement in France, pp. 36-37.
2. The same, p. 35.
3. Compare L. Levine [Lorwin]: Syndicalism in France, p. II.
4. “In fact Syndicalism is largely a revolt against socialism.” (J. Ramsay MacDonald: Syndicalism, p. 6.)
5. See J. A. Estey: Revolutionary Syndicalism, p. 74.
6. See E. Pouget: Sabotage.
7. See Andre Tridon: The New Unionism, pp. 20-21.
8. See Arnold Roller: The Social General Strike, p. 16.
9. E. Pataud and E. Pouget: Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth (How We Shall Bring About the Revolution), p. 220.
10. See W. H. Crook: The General Strike, pp. 44-45.
11. Pataud and Pouget, work cited, p. 227.
12. See G. Sorel: Reflections on Violence, pp. 178-193.
13. W. H. Crook: The General Strike, p. 222, quoting from Trotsky’s Russland in der Revolution, p. 228.
14. At present the union members number about 1,500,000.
15. Lack of space prevents us from going into an extended analysis of the present Spanish situation.