Founded in 1922, the International Workers’ Association (IWA) is celebrating its centenary this month. Over the last century it has represented many millions of people, faced repression from State forces and bounced back from the precipice. It has fought for the abolition of capitalism and the State, the implementation of libertarian communism and full workers’ control.
While the anarchist union’s origins can be traced back to the First International and an infamous split with the Marxists in 1872, its key moment was in the aftermath of the First World War.
As the peasants and workers rose up in Russia in 1917-18 there was optimism that the world was finally witnessing the beginning of a great revolutionary wave. Many anarchists from the collapsing Russian Empire returned to help with the evolving struggle.
The revolution was betrayed, however. A faction under the command of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin took control of many of the workers’ councils (soviets), surviving State institutions and military formations. They formed a so-called “workers’ state” which in reality crushed workers’ autonomy. They merged unions into the State rendering them toothless, and reimplemented many capitalist policies.
The new “Soviet” Republic formed a Third International (Comintern) under its direct control and a Profintern for unions, which revolutionary syndicalists were initially invited to join, but upon their arrival in Russia they found their comrades facing Bolshevik repression. With direct democracy subverted, publications were suppressed, with anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists facing arrest and execution.
Rejecting both Russian control and the rise of social democrat trade unionism, the anarchist and revolutionary syndicalists decided that it was time to form an international of unions to fight for the working class.
In the winter of 1922-1923 they met illegally in Berlin with representatives attending from Argentina, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Sweden. The biggest organisation of all, Spain’s CNT, had its delegates arrested on the way to Berlin and joined the following year. Together these organisations formed the International Workers’ Association with a combined membership representing millions.
In the following years more syndicalist unions and propaganda groups joined, and the IWA established working relationships across the Americas and in Africa.
Over the next decade however the suppression of radicals worsened. In 1937 the Soviet-backed Spanish Republican government, which had depended on anarchist fighters for its survival against Franco’s fascist rebellion a year prior, smashed the revolution before itself being defeated. Fascist regimes sprouted across Europe. Their rise saw anarchist and syndicalist unions banned, their members persecuted, arrested and often executed. Many opted to organise clandestinely or went into exile. By the end of WWII both repression, and the fact many organisations had played an active role in resistance and partisan campaigns, left many IWA affiliated groups reduced beyond effectiveness or defunct.
It wasn’t until 1951 that the IWA was in a position to call another conference. Despite the hardships of two decades of counter-revolution and global war, many previously affiliated sections turned up, albeit much diminished. The IWA was thus able to relaunch. Notably absent were organisations from Eastern Europe, where the new Soviet regimes had banned strikes and prohibited free trade unions.
As the Cold War camps began to establish themselves, the US started heavily investing in and exporting its anti-communist ideology against even the most banal social democratic governments across Latin America, Africa and Asia. Caught up in this global power struggle, between two entities actively hostile to libertarian socialism, progress was slow.
By the end of the Sixties however dissatisfaction was growing with the post-war order and a wave of revolutionary fervour swept Europe, notably in France 1968 and Italy 1969. With the death of Franco in 1975, the CNT too finally returned to Spain after decades in exile and quickly expanded.
The 1980s and ’90s saw more groups joining, representing workers in Australia, Brazil, Japan, Britain and the US. Despite arguments and splits it continued to grow and as the Soviet Union collapsed new sections formed, such as the Polish ZSP, Russian KRAS, Serbia’s ASI and the Slovakian PA — and most recently the Bangladesh Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation.
The IWA was formed at a tumultuous time in an age of rising oppression. Against that backdrop it has struggled for a century. Learning from the economic tyranny of the West and the failure of the Soviet experiment, time has only vindicated the IWA’s dedication to opposing the centralising forces of wealth and power.
Despite heavy oppression it has persevered and fearlessly promoted leaderless organisation from below, direct and accountable democracy, supporting mutual aid projects as well as worker control and self management. Whether fighting for better wages and working conditions, supporting migrants and other marginalised communities or opposing the rising threat of the global far-right, the IWA’s heartfelt desire for a truly meaningful libertarian communism continues to burn bright.
~ Sam Skelt
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 edition of Freedom journal, available at our online shop for the cost of postage.