The turn of the year saw the 85th anniversary of the IWA’s founding in Berlin in December 1922 and January 1923. Here, we look at the struggle to establish an (anarcho-)syndicalist International in the 50 years between the demise of the 1st International and the events in Berlin

Many basic tenets of anarcho-syndicalism developed within the 1st International. After the split between anarchists and Marxists in 1872 the anarchist wing of the International, with a membership of 150,000, still had influence beyond its numbers. Throughout the 1870s, it assisted the development of anarcho-syndicalism.

To combat the increasing global centralisation of capitalism it argued for national and international industrial organisation within individual sectors of the economy. The idea was to build a strong, co-ordinated International in two dimensions. ‘Horizontally’, there would be general workers’ organisations, formed on the basis of locality. Then, ‘vertical’ organisation was envisaged to provide regional, national and global solidarity within industries facing the same problems. This was the basic structure that was to be adopted by the emerging anarcho-syndicalist unions some 25 years later.

In 1877, the International warned that unions aimed solely at improving workers conditions “will never lead to the emancipation of the working class; their ultimate goal must be to expropriate the possessing classes, thereby suppressing wage slavery and delivering the means of production into the hands of the workers”.
Soon after, however, state repression and economic downturn forced the workers on to the defensive and the international movement went into deep decline. The 1880s and 90s saw minimal anarchist influence on the workers movement. It was also a period that saw the founding in 1889 of the 2nd International, dedicated to the parliamentary road to socialism, from which anarchists were expressly barred in 1896.

revolutionary syndicalism

However, by 1906 revolutionary syndicalism had exploded on to the scene, driven by growing working class discontent. The possibility of a new revolutionary International was soon raised. Thus, at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, revolutionary syndicalist delegates discussed closer international links. The outcome was the Bulletin International du Mouvement Syndicaliste, financed by syndicalist organisations in the Netherlands, Germany, Bohemia, Sweden and France.

In the next few years, revolutionary syndicalism made rapid headway internationally. Then in 1912 simultaneous calls for an International were issued by the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) in Britain and the Dutch Nationaal Arbeids Secretariaat (NAS). Syndicalist unions in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Spain and the USA endorsed these calls. However, they were not welcomed by the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) which opposed the idea of a revolutionary syndicalist International for reasons peculiar to the development of French syndicalism. As the first union organisation there, the CGT was attempting to organise all workers, including those who supported reformism. Some French anarcho-syndicalists therefore advocated the idea of a ‘conscious’ group of revolutionaries organising within the CGT to convince workers of the need for revolutionary change and to protect the organisation from reformism.

The CGT revolutionaries extended this to the reformist International, the ISNTUC (International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centres). The revolutionary CGT would work to convince the reformist International of the need for revolution. Pointing out that most unions were in the ISNTUC, they called on syndicalist organisations to agitate within ISNTUC rather than set up a separate International. In this call the CGT was alone. Most revolutionary syndicalists were overtly hostile to ISNTUC; many had been separated or expelled from unions affiliated to it.

With only the CGT opposed, a conference took place in London in September 1913. In attendance were delegates from Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Poland, Spain, Cuba, Brazil and Argentina, representing a combined membership of some 300,000. Also present were observers from various IWW affiliates as well as delegates from propaganda organisations like the ISEL and various anarchist organisations.

The conference attempted to codify the basic principles of revolutionary syndicalism. Nowhere was this clearer than on the issue of political neutrality. While the CGT had never explicitly stated its opposition to political parties, only the need for independence from them, the 1913 conference voiced total opposition to the state, capitalism and political parties of all forms, whose very existence is geared to capturing state power.

However, no new revolutionary syndicalist International was created. The French CGT was greatly esteemed and some were reluctant to set up a new organisation without it. There was also an opinion that the CGT would inevitably split into reformists and revolutionaries with the latter joining a revolutionary International at a later date. Instead a temporary measure was agreed, the Syndicalist Information Bureau in Amsterdam, to coordinate solidarity, exchange information and organise a further international conference.

Importantly, the 1913 conference represents the first effort to bring the various strands of anarcho-syndicalist thinking into one overarching set of basic principles. Delegates departed charged up by a successful conference and the prospect of establishing an International as the first stage in overthrowing capitalism.

Little did they realise that within a year workers would be slaughtering each other in the carnage of World War I. The war halted the moves towards an International and individual syndicalist organisations were left to organise opposition within their own countries which saw, both in America and Europe, numerous syndicalists imprisoned and many executed. Meanwhile many reformist unions used the war to eradicate the growing syndicalist threat of by signing no-strike agreements in return for sole negotiation rights.

It was not until 1918 that an international syndicalist meeting took place. Held in Holland, delegates attended from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but those from Germany were refused entry. The meeting agreed to a new international conference but the Dutch government banned this and attempts to reorganise it in Denmark and Sweden were similarly halted.


By this time events in Russia had cast a shadow causing major splits among syndicalists and disrupting moves towards a revolutionary syndicalist International. There was a lack of knowledge about the real nature of the Bolsheviks but even those anarcho-syndicalists with misgivings saw in it an organisation that had constantly opposed the war calling for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. So, when they called for an international conference many anarcho-syndicalists welcomed it. With both worker unrest and syndicalist organisations growing speedily, many reasoned that world revolution could happen shortly so a united revolutionary organisation was an urgent necessity.

For his part, with the international communist movement still weak in 1918, Lenin needed the support of syndicalist organisations. Only the Russian syndicalists were not invited – in fact the Bolsheviks had banned the 3rd All Russian Conference of Anarcho-Syndicalists a few months before the international conference took place in March 1919 in Moscow. Due to travel restrictions few delegates arrived from beyond Russia. The meeting did little more than establish the 3rd International, or Comintern (CI), and call for the immediate seizure of power by the working class under the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

speaking out

After the conference syndicalist attitudes changed. Come the end of the civil war, Russian anarcho-syndicalists who had refused to speak out against the Bolsheviks while the revolution was under threat, now began to do so. The truth about the Bolsheviks increased the doubts about entering an International with them and the Swedish SAC and German FAUD called for a separate syndicalist International.

Hence, the 2nd meeting of the CI in 1920 took place in changed circumstances. Before the conference the Bolsheviks announced a new international trade union body, the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). Syndicalists were handed a manifesto, To Syndicalists of all Nations, with a clear message – the world syndicalist movement was to be subordinate to the communist political leadership in Moscow. It argued for a “close indestructible alliance between the communist party and the trade unions” and for the setting up of communist cells within reformist unions to capture the leadership. Syndicalists rejected this out of hand.

In the conference the Bolsheviks presented a further document stating that the proletariat cannot accomplish revolution without a political party leading it. They argued that the aim of the revolution was to capture state power under the communiist party leadership and explicitly repudiated the basic principles of revolutionary syndicalism.

The syndicalist delegates presented passionate and powerful defences of syndicalism. Jack Tanner, from the Shop Stewards’ Movement in Britain, agreed with the idea of a conscious revolutionary minority but pointed out that, if this formed into a party, it would become detached from the workers’ struggle and a slave to its own power interests.

The German anarcho-syndicalist, Souchy, stressed the idea that “revolutionary theory should derive from the conscious development of the tendencies and means embedded in the workers’ actual struggle with the bourgeoisie”; that a successful International must encompass “the living spirit of the working class movement... found not in the heads of theoreticians but in the hearts of workers”. Replying to the Bolshevik view that workers could not organise the economy without a communist party, Souchy asked: “Who is to organise the economy? Some bourgeois elements which we organise into parties, who are not in touch with...economic life, or rather those...near the source of production and consumption?”

Perhaps the most telling speech was by Pestaña, from the Spanish CNT, about how revolutions happen. He ridiculed the idea that political parties organise revolutions, arguing that they blossom from complex evolutionary processes. For Pestaña, the revolution would emerge when there was “a spiritual condition favourable to change in the norms that govern the life of the people”, brought about when there was a critical difference between “the people and their aspirations and the organisations that govern them”. He openly mocked the idea that the Bolsheviks organised the Russian revolution, calling their seizure of power a “coup d’état”. As he put it, the Russian revolution was one thing; the Bolshevik seizure of power quite another.

founding the IWA

It took a further meeting of the RILU before the syndicalists abandoned it. In 1920 a syndicalist conference adopted seven points to be accepted by the RILU so that syndicalists could join it. The most important were that the RILU must be completely independent of political parties and that the socialist reorganisation of society could only be carried out by the economic organisations of the working class. All seven points were duly rejected and the final breach between revolutionary syndicalism and Bolshevism had occurred. At the 1921 FAUD Congress, syndicalist delegates from Germany, Sweden, Holland, Czechoslovakia and the USA agreed on an international congress in Berlin in 1922 to form a new International of revolutionary syndicalists.

In December 1922 and January 1923 the International Congress of Syndicalists met in Berlin with delegates from the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA), the Chilean IWW, the Danish Union for Syndicalist Propaganda, the German FAUD, the Dutch NAS, the Italian Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI), the Mexican Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT), the Norwegian Norsk Syndikalistisk Federation (NSF), the Portuguese Confederação Geral do Trabalho (CGT) and the Swedish Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation (SAC). The Spanish CNT, engaged in a bitter struggle with the Spanish state, sent messages of support after their delegation was arrested on the way to Berlin. Though many organisations present had already endured severe state repression, they still totalled several million workers.

Russian lessons

The Congress codified anarcho-syndicalism into several basic principles. In general, this was based on the work of the 1913 conference but also took on board lessons from the Russian revolution.

For instance, earlier advocates of the general strike had argued that workers’ economic power was such that a largely peaceful transfer of power could take place. The Russian revolution had dispelled this notion. The Congress recognised the social general strike as the highest expression of direct action. But, as the prelude to social revolution, it would probably have to be defended by violent means. While recognising that violence may be necessary, the Congress stipulated that defence of the revolution should be completely in the hands of the workers, organised in workers’ militias accountable to and controlled by the wider workers’ movement.

Centralism, political parties, parliamentarianism and the state, including ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, were emphatically rejected. Also rejected was the Marxist concept of liberation “by virtue of some inevitable fatalism of rigid natural laws which admit no deviation”.

The programme also clarified that syndicalism opposed not only economic inequality, but all inequality and dominance. It also stated total opposition to war and militarism. In terms of post-capitalist organisation, the programme envisaged a system of economic communes and administrative organs, based within a system of free councils federated locally, regionally and up to the global level. These would be the basis of a self-managed society in which workers in every branch of industry would regulate production and distribution according to the needs and interests of the community, by mutual agreement and according to a predetermined plan. The revolutionary aim was stipulated as seeking to replace the government of people by the management of things.

The IWA founding congress was a watershed in the development of anarcho-syndicalism. Ideas and tactics developed via practical direct action and self-organisation across the world were brought together and distilled into a clear set of principles. These described the fundamental core of anarcho-syndicalism and remain just as relevant today. For the first time anarcho-syndicalism was clearly defined as an international movement.


In the next few years unions and propaganda groups from France, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Poland and Rumania affiliated to the IWA. Later, ACAT (American Continental Association of Workers) affiliated en bloc, with unions and propaganda groups from Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba, Costa Rica and El Salvador.

However, the IWA had formed against a background of mounting repression. Even at the Berlin Congress, the USI warned of the rise of fascism. In the 1920s the USI had some 600,000 members but within a few years of Mussolini coming to power the fascists had annihilated it. This was followed by the merciless destruction of the German FAUD by the Nazis. The CNT in Spain was executed out of existence by Franco during and after the 1936-9 Spanish revolution. By the end of World War II much of the pre-war anarcho-syndicalist movement was wiped out leaving a handful of smaller organisations struggling to keep the movement alive.

article based on unit 13, A History of Anarcho-Syndicalism, 24 pamphlets downloadable for free from

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