Freedom News

Syndicalism – a working-class conception of socialism

The Freedom Newspaper of November 1912 contains an in-depth examination of syndicalism, a non-hierarchical form of union organisation which had exploded across Europe over the previous few years, manifesting in Britain as part of the Great Unrest. The following article is unsigned, but contains the hallmarks of Peter Kropotkin’s writing.

Freedom has on several occasions dealt with syndicalism, with its origin and meaning; but this movement is taking such an important development, its formulas on social justice and the economic struggle are so striking and simple, that every anarchist and socialist, as well as every trade unionist, must give his full attention to its study and propagation. For this reason we return once again to the subject.

French syndicalism, which in reality is the origin of the international syndicalist movement, formulates its aims in the statutes of the French Confederation of Labour as follows.

  1. To organise the wage-earners for the defence of their moral and material, their economic and professional interests.
  2. To organise, outside all political parties, all the workers conscious of the struggle for the abolition of the wage system and employers.

These two paragraphs contain the fundamental claims of socialism, without distinction of school or party; and every member of a socialist party, whether social democratic/anarchist, or other, can fully accept them.

Under this banner French syndicalism in less than fifteen years has united over 600,000 members, 400,000 of whom are paying their contributions to the Confederation of Labour. This huge army of syndicalists is organised on the lines of autonomy of the respective syndicates and their federations, whether local or national. The same autonomy extends to each individual member, who outside his syndicate is entirely free in his political conceptions, and can belong to any political party for parliamentary or municipal elections; but nobody has the right to take part in them in his capacity as a syndicalist or as a member of a syndicalist administration.

The fundamental formula of syndicalism, with its exclusion of Parliamentary action, defines clearly its place among existing socialist and anarchist, parties. It is evident that syndicalism cannot be put under the banner of social democracy or any other Parliamentary party. On the other side, we cannot say that these formulas are purely anarchistic, because, as we saw, syndicalism allows its members individually to take part in electoral agitation; whilst anarchism obliges its followers not only to abstain from working in elections, but even to expose the futility of Parliamentary legislation. This point must be kept clearly in mind.

Beside the definition of aims and tactics, syndicalism evolved a real working men’s conception of a future society where production will be organised and controlled by the autonomous federations of syndicates of producers.

From this short exposition of syndicalist aims it is evident that though syndicalism cannot be ranged under any of the existing socialist parties, the members of all those parties, if sincere socialists, revolutionists, and honest trade unionists, can fight together in a syndicalist organisation for their social and economic emancipation. This is all the more true as syndicalism not only unites the workers in the struggle against the individual capitalist master or company, but also against the municipality or State as employers of labour.

As tactics of the daily fight against all forms of exploitation, syndicalism adopted so-called direct action in opposition to the indirect action of Parliamentary legislation, the weapon being the strike in all its forms — including the general strike of all trades of the whole country.

This definition of tactics was not a dead letter. The history of the last ten years in France shows a new spirit in the working class movement. We recall only the strike for an eight-hour day in 1906, organised by the Confederation of Labour [1, also main pic], which brought the syndicalists in collision with the government, the building strike in Paris, the strikes of the postal employees, of the railwaymen, and of the seamen and dockers. All these strikes were remarkable for their revolutionary character and the wonderful solidarity among the workers all over France. This new spirit affected even the State officials, and the syndicates of the railway men and the postal employees, and recently the Teachers’ Union, affiliated themselves to the Confederation of Labour, in spite of the persecution by the government.

But syndicalism not only brought a new life into the economic struggle; instead of the old-fashioned trade unionism with its sectional strikes, it propagated the industrial organisation of the workers, so that in case of a strike in a trade the workers of the whole industry to which that trade belongs will fight together. For instance, in the building industry many trades are concerned; formerly- each trade union, as that of the bricklayers, masons, carpenters, etc., would fight each for its own demands; whilst according to the syndicalist conception, all those trades in the building industry will be federated and make common cause for each to obtain their claims.

If we remember its socialistic aims, its concentration on the economic struggle, its frankly revolutionary spirit, we must admit that syndicalism has succeeded in creating not only a powerful weapon for social and economic emancipation, but also a new mode of organisation capable of embracing all the producing classes.

Syndicalism also rendered good service in breaking up the deadly stupefaction and reaction of Parliamentarism and legalism which for forty years has paralysed the socialist movement of Europe. In the “sixties” of last century socialism stirred the working classes, especially of France and England, to great, activity. The English trade unionists at that time were not. yet legalised, and they fought for their rights by demonstrations, riots, and strikes until, helped by advanced liberals, such as John Stuart Mill, Frederic Harrison, and others, they obtained the legal recognition of their unions. ’The suffrage was extended, and the idea of Parliamentary labour representation was ’suggested for the first time (see J. S. Mill’s letter to Odger in the Beehive) in 1870.

From that time the tactics of direct economic struggle were little by little abandoned; respectability and legality became the watchwords of the trade union leaders. Parliamentary representatives of labour continuously increased in number, and the influence of the officials and leaders of organised labour began to dominate. Instead of fighting by strikes, the idea and practice of arbitration grew apace; the leaders began even to praise compulsory arbitration in labour conflicts, and it was realised in the young democratic English colonies, Australia and New Zealand. The energy of the working classes in the economic struggle diminished, and consequently in many branches of work advantages which had been won by fighting were lost, and wages lowered. With growing Parliamentarism, “trade union activities were slackened down the energies of some unions were put nearly entirely into Parliamentary and political channels,” says W. C. Anderson, in the Socialist Review, October, 1911 [pdf].

At the same time, in 1870, the Franco-German War broke out, the terrible suppression of the Paris Commune followed, and the finest representatives of the French socialist workers were massacred. France, humiliated by disasters, was oppressed for the following ten years by a military and clerical reaction. The discouraged survivors of the Commune, some of them socialists, instead of the direct economic struggle, adopted legal Parliamentarian tactics. The so-called “Parti Socialiste,” with its “programme minimum,” began to develop and to claim the monopoly of socialism, systematically opposing any independent working-class organisation for economic direct action. At the beginning the syndicalist movement found its greatest enemies not so much among the employers or authorities as among those, would-be socialist Parliamentarians, with their formula, “by, legal Parliamentary political action to arrive at a social transformation.”

The best-known French socialist leaders, as Guesde, Vaillant, Jaures, and even the revolutionary Herve, always assert that the socialist side of the syndicalist programme has been taken from them. But if we compare syndicalist formulas with any socialist or radical schools we find that if they are related to any it is with the great French peasant socialist. J. P. Proudhon, who in his L’ldee Generale de la Revolution [translated here] says, “to melt, to merge, to dissolve the political or governmental system into an economic one by reducing, simplifying, decentralising, and abolishing one after the other all the parts of the enormous machine called government or State.”

On the other hand, the device of the Parliamentary socialist, “by political action to arrive at a social transformation,” is nearly word by word a repetition of the radical creed before the Revolution of 1848, as expressed by the great radical leader, Ledru-Rollin, the ardent advocate of universal suffrage, which he introduced during the Revolution of 1848: “The tendencies distinguishing the democratic party from others are that it strives to arrive by politics at a social transformation.”

As the origin of the ideas of French syndicalism can be traced to Proudhon, those of English syndicalism can be directly attributed to Robert Owen and the Owenite movement (1825-40). The Owenites understood quite well that the so-called labour legislation and political reforms, as insurance against accidents, co-partnership, etc., were palliatives, as Thompson said in his Labour Rewarded (1827) [available here]. From whom the Owenites expected the real solution of the social problem, may be seen from the following words of Thompson :—“ Industrious classes, whose voice has never been consulted in regulating their destinies, are now learning their own interests and their importance as rational beings; they will soon speak out; and thenceforward they alone will regulate human affairs, essentially their affairs.”

Robert Owen’s declaration at a great meeting in 1833 was as categorical and clear: “The source of wealth is labour. Wealth will remain in the hands of the workers when they act in concert to this end.”

We wish the newly started English syndicalist movement the same success as was enjoyed by the Owenite movement at that period, when the Owenite General Union of Productive Classes had more than 500,000 members, among whom were many agricultural labourers’ Unions, as well as working women’s organisations.

But Proudhon’s mutualism, as well as the Owenite movement, were diverted from their economic action by political movements, as, for instance, Chartism. This will not be the case with syndicalism, with its direct action against capitalism and the State. To act against the State means to attack, to destroy its political institutions; and to substitute for the State organisation the industrial unions of the producing classes.

This is part of our monthly series looking back on working class struggle in the early 1910s in the run-up to World War One, through articles found in the Freedom archive.


1. This is a reference to the May 1st general strike for the eight-hour day. Then-prime minister Georges Clemenceau responded by having the headquarters of the CGT searched and two union leaders, secretary Victor Griffuelhes and treasurer Gaston Lévy, arrested. Clemenceau placed Paris in a state of partial siege throughout the day, mobilising 45,000 soldiers and having more than 800 demonstrators arrested. Related strikes broke out and persisted until from May 4th-15th in Paris and Lyon.

Discover more from Freedom News

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading