Anarcho-Syndicalism

Anarcho-syndicalism might not be the most well-known political ideology, but anarcho-syndicalist beliefs and positions are often at the forefront of struggles for better pay and working conditions around the world. 

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    Anarcho-syndicalist ideas also shaped important conflicts in the 20th Century, including the Spanish Civil War. In order to understand these struggles - both past and present - we need to understand what anarcho-syndicalists believe about the world, and how they hope to change it. Let's dive right in!

    Anarcho-Syndicalism definition

    As you can see in the graphic, anarcho-syndicalism is a form of anarchist thought. As such, anarcho-syndicalism shares the fundamental anarchist belief that state structures are oppressive, and that human potential is best reached without a traditional form of government.

    Anarcho-Syndicalism Illustration of forms of Anarchism StudySmarterFig. 1 - Different branches of anarchist thought

    The graphic also shows us that anarcho-syndicalism belongs to the collectivist branch of anarchist thought, and is heavily influenced by Marxist, communist and socialist ideas. Anarcho-syndicalists share the communist view that capitalism is an oppressive economic system and one that will never be able to meet the essential needs of workers in a way that is fair and just. Like communists, anarcho-syndicalists believe that the means of production should be collectivised, or placed in the hands of the workers. Only then will resources be distributed fairly within society, allowing workers to live happy, fulfilled lives free from dependence on low wages.

    What makes anarcho-syndicalism different from other types of collectivist anarchism is in how this just society is to be achieved. Unlike most communists, anarcho-syndicalists believe that a strong state is not a prerequisite for achieving worker control over the means of production. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers should form themselves into workers' or trade unions (syndicat in French) in order to gain control over the means of production. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that these workers' unions - so long as they are democratically run - are sufficient for maintaining order and justice in society and no other form of state or government is necessary.

    The means of production refers to those things which are needed to produce goods or services, and can include things such as factories, machinery, human labour or agricultural land.

    One of the main aims of anarcho-syndicalism is to end wage slavery. Wage slavery refers to the situation in which the market pushes down wages so much that workers are forced to work for these wages even if this means living in poverty. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that wage labour systems under capitalism invariably result in wage slavery and so they seek to overthrow both.

    Anarcho-syndicalism theory

    Anarcho-syndicalist theory is also very heavily influenced by the writings of Georges Sorel, who was born in France in 1847. Sorel started his career as a liberal-conservative before gradually shifting towards Marxist thought, social democracy and - finally - syndicalism. Sorel argued that much-needed political change and the end of an oppressive capitalist order would only come through a proletarian revolution. He also argued that the best strategy for achieving this revolution is through a crippling general strike organised by syndicats - or unions - of workers, organised by trade or industry.

    Sorel believed that, after the revolution, these unions could form the basis of social, political and economic organisation based on principles of solidarity and direct democracy. He called this form of organisation syndicalism, and argued that it is the only viable alternative to the state, which will always act in the interests of the capitalist class. Importantly, Sorel argued that the revolution could come about through violent means and that in the case of class struggle, a violent revolution could actually save society from becoming barbaric.

    Anarcho-syndicalism Portrait of Anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of Anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel

    Anarcho-Syndicalism history

    The International Workers' Association (IWA) is a global federation comprised of anarcho-syndicalist labour unions. At the height of its influence during the 1920s and 1930s, the IWA represented millions of workers around the world. Individual members of the IWA were active in struggles around the world, including the Spanish Civil War. The proliferation of fascist regimes in the 1930s and the persecution of anarchists elsewhere severely reduced the global strength of the IWA by the end of the Second World War.

    Anarcho-syndicalism The black cat symbol of anarcho-syndicalism and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) StudySmarterFig. 3 - The black cat symbol of anarcho-syndicalism and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). iww.org.uk

    During the Spanish Revolution of the late 1930s, the region of Catalonia was governed in line with anarcho-syndicalist and anarcho-communist ideals between 1936 and 1939. Trade unions took the responsibility for economic and social affairs, with the National Confederation of Labor (CNT) being the largest trade union in revolutionary Catalonia. In Catalonia, roughly 70% of the economy was under the control of the workers union. The rights of women and the collectivisation of various enterprises were emphasised by Catalan revolutionaries, who were inspired by the work of Peter Kropotkin.

    Anarcho-Syndicalism Flag of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) StudySmarterFig. 4 - Flag of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT)

    Whilst Revolutionary Catalonia was an example of the largest and most successful anarcho-syndicalist territory in history revolutionary Catalonia was eventually brought under the control of nationalist forces led by General Franco in 1939. The lack of longevity ofthe anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain has been attributed to the CNT's collaborationist relationship with the republican government in Catalonia.

    As the Spanish Civil War dragged on, the CNT was forced into collaboration with the socialist (but, obviously, not anarchist) republican government, and a number of militias and other organisations came under state control. There was dissatisfaction among the rank and file at this betrayal of anarchist values1, which has been laballed collaborationism. With the victory of General Francisco Franco's fascist forces in 1939, the CNT was outlawed along with any public expression of anarcho-syndicalism.

    Collaborationism means collaborating with one's political opponents, regardless of deep ideological differences.

    Anarcho-syndicalism in Spain was not just revolutionary in terms of the way the economy was restructured but also in terms of the role women played in the new economy. Many women were involved in anarcho-syndicalist organisations at the strategic level, and were active in running worker-led enterprises. Anarcho-syndicalists sought to implement their view of gender equality, liberating them from traditional roles and integrating them into the workforce.

    Anarcho-Syndicalism beliefs

    For anarcho-syndicalists, the goal of political action is to replace the state with a syndicalist form of political, social and economic organisation. While anarcho-syndicalists may have slightly different beliefs about exactly when society will be ready for revolution, and how to bring that revolution about, there are three principles that all anarcho-syndicalists would subscribe to, and which influence the ways in which they act.

    Direct Action

    Anarcho-syndicalists support direct action by workers. This means that individuals use their own power to make change as opposed to deferring to some kind of political representative. Direct action can be either violent or non-violent, and a common example of direct action undertaken by anarcho-syndicalists would be protests and strikes. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that it is only through direct action that workers will be able to achieve concessions from capitalist rulers.

    Anarcho-syndicalism The black cat of anarcho-syndicalism endorsing direct action StudySmarterFig. 5 - The black cat of anarcho-syndicalism endorsing direct action.

    Solidarity

    Anarcho-syndicalists believe that all workers, regardless of the peculiarities of their struggle, are all victims of the same capitalist system and that they are all engaged in the same fundamental battle against capitalist oppression. As a result, anarcho-syndicalists tend to emphasise the notion of solidarity among workers and they may be very active in supportive struggles by workers in sectors or industries which are very different from their own.

    Anarcho-syndicalist solidarity can also be expressed for political causes that they believe are linked to overall capitalist oppression, even if these include struggles for ethnic or national self-determination, regional autonomy or some other minority struggle. Syndacalists believe that in order to achieve true liberation workers must unite and support each other in the revolution.

    Direct Democracy

    The concept of syndicalism as a way of organising society rests on the principle of direct democracy. Syndicats can only work if they are democratically run, and decisions are taken only after hearing all points of view. Anarcho-syndicalist organisations tend to engage in deliberative direct democracy, with plenty of space for consultation and voting on key decisions. For anarcho-syndicalists, democratically-elected leadership is the only valid form of authority, and leaders or representatives must be wholly accountable to the workers that elect them.

    Anarcho Syndicalist Books

    Below are a few texts that have been influential in anarcho-syndicalist thought:

    George Sorel - Reflections on Violence 1908

    Sorel's book Reflections on Violence was influential even beyond left-wing and syndicalist circles. In this book, Sorel speaks about violence not as a terrifying force for evil, but as something that is creative, life-giving and even virtuous. The idea is that violence can lead to "catastrophic revolutions", moments in history in which things which seem static and unchangeable are toppled, thus opening up space for the moral regeneration of human society.

    Sorel also emphasised the importance of "myths", which he defined as an intention to action. He regarded the revolutionary strike as a "myth", in the sense that the idea of the revolution had the power to inspire action on behalf of those who came into contact with it. It could inspire workers to rise up and it could weaken the resolve of the political class and push them towards making concessions. Although Sorel is often thought of as a thinker that influenced left-wing or socialist thought, his ideas on myth and violence were also taken up by individuals on the extreme right, such as the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany.

    Rudolph Rocker - Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice 1937

    Rudolph Rocker was a German anarchist and a contemporary of the influential anarchist Emma Goldman who urged Rocker to write this text. In this book, Rudolph Rocker provides a historical overview of anarcho-syndicalism and outlines the strategies used by anarcho-syndicalists in such historical moments as the Spanish Revolution. Rocker's text serves as an introduction to those interested in anarcho-syndicalist ideas and was written during the height of anarcho-syndicalist influence on revolutionary movements. Rocker expresses his support for the belief that regular people have the power to transform and reform society in order to fulfil their needs and achieve liberty.

    George Orwell is possibly most famous for his critiques of authoritarianism in his books Animal Farm and 1984. Alarmed by the rise of fascism in Spain, Orwell left England in 1936 to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. While in Spain, Orwell witnessed firsthand the implementation of anarcho-syndicalist principles in Catalonia and wrote about his experiences in a book called Homage to Catalonia. Orwell describes the revolutionary ideals of the anarcho-syndalicalist movement and how it aimed to improve the lives of ordinary people, creating a fairer and more equal society. He also saw how the anarcho-syndicalists were eventually suppressed by their own allies on the Republican side of the war, leading to the collapse of the movement.

    Orwell's experiences made him a lifelond advocate for socialism, and in 1946 he wrote in an essay entitled Why I Write that "every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism."

    Anarcho-Syndicalism - Key takeaways

    • Anarcho-syndicalism (sometimes referred to as syndicalism) seeks to replace the state and capitalism with democratic unions of workers.
    • Anarcho-syndicalism is a bottom-up revolutionary approach as it calls on the solidarity among economically-oppressed groups and the working class in order to make systematic change.
    • Anarcho-syndicalists believe that the means of production should be collectivised, or placed in the hands of the workers.
    • The Spanish Revolution serves as the best historical example of the implementation of anarcho-syndicalism, though it was shortlived.
    • There are three basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism: direct action, solidarity and direct democracy.
    • Anarcho-syndicalism is heavily influenced by the writings of Georges Sorel who is credited with being a core figure within French syndicalist theory.

    1. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies Sixth Edition, London 2017 pg 208


    References

    1. Fig. 2 - Portrait of Anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Georges_Sorel.jpg, by Unknown Author, Public Domain
    2. Fig. 3 - The black cat symbol of anarcho-syndicalism and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) https://iww.org.uk/app/uploads/event/IWW-sabotage-cat.png, , by IWW, Public Domain
    3. Fig. 4 - Flag of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT), https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Logo_CNT.svg, Public Domain
    4. Fig. 5 - The black cat of anarcho-syndicalism endorsing direct action., http://iww.org.uk
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Anarcho-Syndicalism

    What is anarcho-syndicalism?

    Anarcho-syndicalism is concerned with the labour and workers movement and seeks to use trade/labour unions in order to remove the state and capitalism. 

     What are anarcho-syndicalism practices?

    Anarcho-syndicalism practices direct action, direct democracy and worker solidarity. 

    Are anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism similar?

     Anarchist Communism and Anarcho-syndicalism are two distinct theories and practices but they are not in contradiction with one another and in fact complement each other. Many anarcho-syndicalists have roots in anarcho-communism and vice versa due to their similarity. 

     What is Rudolf Rocker anarchism syndicalism?

    Rudolf Rocker Anarcho-Syndicalism is a book by Rudolf Rocker where he introduces anarchist ideals and histories as well as a history of the international workers' movement, and an outline of the syndicalist strategies. 

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