Anarcho-syndicalism has always been a theory of change derived from the practice of the working class. It started as a movement, expressing itself through action, and any theorists that emerged were militant workers who wrote for workers, not for social philosophers. They dealt with issues of the moment, not with metaphysical niceties that so impress intellectuals and academics. As such, their writings are not to be found in academic books but in pamphlets, newspapers and leaflets. Nevertheless anarcho-syndicalists have always had an overall, coherent view of ends and means.
The root of anarcho-syndicalism lies in the class struggle. There are exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed, capital and labour – only the complete overthrow of the existing social, economic and political order, along with the abolition of the state and hierarchical forms of organisation, can change this. This can only be done when the will of the workers to achieve it exceeds the will of capitalism and the state to prevent it. Victory will be by our own efforts. It was once said that while others played at class war like a child with a toy sword, only the syndicalists have constructed from it the appropriate and logical theory of action.
This shows itself in the rejection by syndicalists of political parties; even those who claim to represent the working class because, by their very nature, they deny the class struggle. Party membership cuts across class lines, it draws upon people from differing social backgrounds and economic interests. It attracts armchair socialists and intellectuals who often have an abstract interest in change and so can often ultimately betray the working class.
Socialist parties are dominated by intellectuals and professional politicians. Their basis is ideological, dependent on temporary and superficial agreements on matters of philosophy. The party, unlike the class, is an artificial organisation. It lacks the true solidarity that comes from direct economic interest. Their aim is to gain power by appealing to the lowest common denominator of agreement.
Whatever the method of change, be it by parliamentary means or through the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, it results in substituting one set of rulers for another. Freedom and equality cannot be decreed from above but only achieved by action from below.
Anarcho-syndicalists recognise the need for the working class to organise to bring about a fundamental change in society and in place of the political party anarcho-syndicalists put the revolutionary union – the autonomous organisation of the working class. It unites the workers, not on the basis of some ideology or sentiment, but in their very quality as workers. Although the revolutionary union is a political as well as an economic organisation, it is not concerned with obscure questions of philosophy. The very reason for its existence is to fight the bosses, to defend the interests of the working class and to push those interests forward until the system of exploitation is abolished. Just as the parliament is the natural expression of the reformist, so the union is the natural form of organisation of the revolutionary working class.
Although the first fully fledged syndicalist union emerged in France with the formation of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in 1895 the ideas that were to form the basis of anarcho-syndicalism had first appeared in Britain in the 1830s and were pivotal in the formation of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (GNCTU). The aim of the Grand National was the complete replacement of capitalism and the system of competition with a co-operative system based on workers’ control. Here we see further key elements emerging of early anarcho-syndicalist ideas. In particular, that of one organisation uniting all workers with the aim of direct workers’ control of industry – an organisation based on the ideas of solidarity and mutual aid.
social general strike
The GNCTU and the CGT also rejected parliamentarianism and the artificial separation of the economic struggle from the political struggle. Both saw political change coming through the actions of the working class organised at the point of production. Both saw the method of change to be strike action culminating in the Social General Strike.
Anarcho-syndicalist ideas spread at the beginning of the 20th Century and revolutionary unions were established in Europe and South America as well as having an influence in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States. One major difference between anarcho-syndicalism and the “industrial unionism” of the IWW is that anarcho-syndicalist unions are federated together; they do not form “One Big Union”. Unfortunately, in Britain, the birthplace of many of these ideas, the nearest an anarcho-syndicalist union came to being established was the Building Workers Industrial Union in 1914. This was soon crushed under wartime emergency regulations with the support of the TUC.
In 1922 the International Workers’ Association (IWA) was established linking all the revolutionary unions together in one federation and the ‘Principles of revolutionary unionism’ were adopted. Each union federated in the IWA adapted the basic principles to the particular situation they found themselves in. The idea of the revolutionary union is to link the present with the future.
Direct action – strikes and other methods of struggle – encourage solidarity. Every strike, successful or not, increases hostility between the classes and stimulates further conflict. The aim of direct action is to win concessions from the bosses in the short term, but in the long term, to give workers the confidence and ability to make wider demands leading eventually to social revolution. It is defensive and offensive, destructive and constructive. Every strike is a step on the road to the final conflict – the social general strike, the beginning of the transformation to a free society. While the class struggle is waged, the future is being created. The union becomes the cell for the new society.
The revolutionary union is seen as a permanent organisation of workers that gives a basis for working class resistance while the intensity of the class struggle ebbs and flows. In times of low class struggle the revolutionary union would be mainly a defensive tool while still advocating different forms of organisation and fundamental change. As the struggle intensifies it would become more aggressive and challenge the capitalist system and the state. This is what distinguishes anarcho-syndicalism from other forms of workplace organisation that see temporary organisations springing up in times of struggle only to fade away.
Such organisations have their place and often emerge spontaneously at certain times but they can so easily be used by various political factions for their own ends. Their political aims may be deliberately obscured to gain support but in an anarcho-syndicalist union the political and economic aims are plain and explicit.
The combining of the political and economic struggle in one organisation is unique to anarcho-syndicalism. Other political groups adopt a dual approach that sees political elites trying to guide the economic struggle in a particular direction. Up to recently the Labour Party has been the main political outlet for the reformist TUC unions. Other groups have been trying to challenge this in recent years but with little success as yet. The various parties of the left will set up groups within the unions to attempt to gain influence and get their members elected into positions of power. These “front” groups will recruit from the wider union membership but will remain under the control of a particular political grouping.
Other revolutionary unions have been established over the years but they have been purely economic organisations that have taken the view that political allegiances should be left out of the union. In reality what has happened is that various political groups have tried to exert influence over these unions in various ways including joining en masse and taking positions of influence within them. This leads to decision making being taken away from the ordinary members and left to a self-appointed political elite.
Of course the revolutionary union is not only concerned with economic issues. As a political organisation it fights all forms of oppression, tyranny and domination. Its federated structure means that geographical links between different industries and international links can be used to resist coercion no matter what guise it takes.
means and ends
Today in Britain there are no functioning revolutionary unions. The Solidarity Federation (SF) is not a union but an organisation of anarcho-syndicalists who promote the idea of revolutionary unionism. To do this it is organised, as any future union would be, on local and industrial lines that are federated together in a national organisation. A member of SF would be a member of both a local and of an industrial grouping. Even given SF’s small size this structure is important since, for anarcho-syndicalists, the means and the ends should be as compatible as possible. In this way we do not lose sight of the final goal. The structure of the Solidarity Federation mirrors how a future union would be structured with no two-tier membership system so loved by other political groups.
Anarcho-syndicalist theory and practice presents a fully harmonised programme of action. The strike, the natural form of conflict, is also the form of revolution. The time that workers could hope to achieve anything purely by insurrection is long past. The revolutionary union gives workers a school in which to practice forms of libertarian organising that reflects how a free society would function, with the ends and means well-matched to create the future society in the shell of the old.