Freedom News


Rudolf Rocker

Historically one of the most prominent forms of social anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism is a school of thought that views labour unions as a potential force for revolutionary social change, capable of replacing capitalism and the State with a new society democratically self-managed by the workers. The basic idea behind anarcho-syndicalism is to create an industrial workers’ union movement based on anarchist ideas, aiming eventually to abolish the wage system and state or private ownership of the means of production, which anarcho-syndicalists believe lead to class divisions. Its proponents advocate decentralised, federated unions that use various forms of direct action (i.e. action concentrated on directly attaining a goal, as opposed to indirect action, such as electing a representative to a government position) to achieve reforms under capitalism until they are strong enough to overthrow it. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that conventional trade unions of the kind prevalent today undermine worker solidarity by dividing workers by trade. In America for example, industrial disputes would sometimes see violent clashes between workers of different unions who would ignore each other’s requests to respect picket lines. The aim of anarcho-syndicalism, on the other hand, is to unite all workers into ‘One Big Union’ controlled by its members from the grassroots. This is obviously in deep contrast to the current reformist unions who are filled with layer upon layer of bureaucrats who can call off industrial action regardless of the wishes of the membership. The kind of union democracy anarcho-syndicalism proposes puts control of workers’ struggles where it belongs: with the workers themselves. Similarly in contrast to reformist trade unions, anarcho-syndicalists don’t view strikes as the only legitimate form of industrial action, but encourage various kinds of direct action including occupations, sabotage and sit-ins, to win industrial disputes. According to one of the ideology’s early and most celebrated proponents, Rudolf Rocker, the anarcho-syndicalist union would also serve as “the elementary school of Socialism”. In his article Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Rocker, who was one of the most popular voices in the early anarcho-syndicalist movement and a prominent figure among Jewish immigrant workers in London’s East End during the early twentieth century, argued that the anarcho-syndicalist union serves a dual purpose, “1. To enforce the demands of the producers for the safeguarding and raising of their standard of living; 2. To acquaint the workers with the technical management of production and economic life in general and prepare them to take the socio-economic organism into their own hands and shape it according to socialist principles.” In short, in contrast to modern unions, anarcho-syndicalist unions aim not just to gain improvements in working conditions, but to lay the foundations of the new society “within the shell of the old”, preparing workers for the direct democracy, self-activity and mutual aid needed if the future society is to succeed. Like all libertarian communists, anarcho-syndicalists (in Rocker’s words) argue that “a Socialist economic order cannot be created by the decrees and statutes of a government, but only by … the taking over of the management of all plants by the producers themselves”. Political parties are not just unnecessary for social change, but actually hold it back. These parties (even those claiming to represent the workers) stifle working class self-activity either by attempting to negotiate with government, or by trying to lead the working class to victory. Anarcho-syndicalism holds that workers should take direct action to get better conditions at work and gain social and political reforms, while always focused on revolution and workers’ control as their ultimate goal. An example of this in practice would be the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour) striking for the release of political prisoners in the beginning of the twentieth century, and British construction workers doing the same in the 1970s. Workplace organising and the organising of those in paid employment are not the sole focus of anarcho-syndicalism. Its supporters advance and participate in many forms of community organising, arguing for the building of residents’ associations and radical community groups to build working class power in the community, using tactics like rent strikes to gain improvements in conditions. Anarcho-syndicalists also believe in the organisation of the unemployed, housewives, students and other unwaged workers into the ‘One Big Union’. Many contemporary anarchists argue that anarcho-syndicalism is more of an anarchist workplace organisational structure than an economic system in and of itself. Historically most anarcho-syndicalists were/are also anarcho-communists (such as Lucy Parsons) or anarcho-collectivists (such as Buenaventura Durruti) but there have been many anarcho-syndicalists who preferred mutualist-type economic arrangements such as Joseph Labadie. Up to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, anarcho-syndicalist unions and organisations were the dominant actors in the revolutionary left. Between 1905 and 1939, the ideology gained a prominent position in the workers’ movements of France, Italy and Spain (the CNT playing a leading role in the Spanish Civil War and Revolution in 1936–39) as well as in the United States and Latin America, where anarchism was the predominant force in the workers’ movement in many countries. Today, though not as powerful a force as it once was, anarcho-syndicalism continues to play a significant role in workers’ struggles in areas of Western Europe. This article appeared in Freedom on 19th January 2008

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