A Brief Question of Syndicalism – the cure for our current malady?

February 2021 Forums General discussion A Brief Question of Syndicalism – the cure for our current malady?

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    I have just published a brief article on syndicalism over on Malady:


    Could syndicalism have been the cure for our affliction that is capitalism? Had we gone the way of Bakunin instead of Marx would things have turned out differently?

    Interested in what other socialists think about this.

    • This topic was modified 1 month, 1 week ago by MustaphaMond.

    Hi Mustapha

    If you type in “syndicalism” in the search facility (top right hand side of this page) there are quite a lot of links to articles published by the SPGB over the years on the subject. Generally speaking we tend to be a bit critical of anarcho=syndicalism as an approach to achieving socialism but I will have a look at your article nonetheless

    Welcome to the forum anyway!


    Glad you added a link. I was searching everywhere on the internet for your article !

    What has been called “syndicalism”, which as you point out goes back to before Marx (and Bakunin), is in its simplest form is a spontaneous expression of workers to capitalist exploitation, the spontaneous class struggle. Nothing wrong with that but is this enough on its own to usher in a non-market, non-state society?

    I don’t think a spontaneous general strike by discontented workers would lead to that. A higher degree of class consciousness is required and by a majority not just an active minority.

    Here is a review from 1913 of a book by two French syndicalists suggesting how a general strike might overthrow capitalism. They were not very convincing!

    How We Are To Be Saved By Syndicalism


    Interesting – do you not think said general strike could form at least part of a revolution?

    Or is it the party’s position that the revolution will solely take place at the ballot box?

    • This reply was modified 1 month, 1 week ago by MustaphaMond.

    Can i add my view.

    Syndicalism as with cooperatives is sectional ownership, not collective ownership by society as a whole. It is particular groups of producers taking possession of their work-place and operating it in their own interests to acquire the fruit of their labour.

    We stand for social ownership or as we prefer to term it – common ownership – to differentiate it from state or municipal ownership and control.

    As a strategy for campaigning and achieving socialism, for sure work-place organisation and formulating the structures of administrating production will be part of it all. But even the IWW have had to change their Haggerty’s Wheel to include the “non-workers” – ie home-makers, the unemployed, the disabled. We must organise outside the work-place and inside wider communities.

    The problem was identified long ago with the slogan, “Railroads to the train-workers, mines to the miners and garbage to the garbage-workers”

    In my own industry, it was the only union in the UK to adopt GDH Cole’s guild socialism, as we were already a state-owned and government-directed industry so the other unions calls for nationalisation was seen as it was – no solution to control over the job.

    Regard general strikes, we are sympathetic to them as a powerful means of leverage such as the current Indian farmers protests, the city-wide strikes of Seattle and Winnipeg (where members of our companion party, the SPC, were active within). We were supportive of the British solidarity General Strike of 1926 but critical of it conduct.

    Our point is that a general strike has limited application and should be aimed at specific labour-problems, not as a tool as revolutionary change. Perhaps it may lead to such consciousness but no guarantee on that.

    As for how socialism is built, i don’t think it is useful to declare any means is “solely” the method. It has to be based on circumstances and situations. At present, for those countries where the World Socialist Movement has a presence, the current political process, with flaws and all, is sufficient if not perfctly ideal. Other places have their own local characteristics and there may well be a different approach. We have adopted the slogan of the Chartists from the 19th C. “Peacefully if possible, forcefully if necessary.”


    No, we don’t say that the revolution should take place solely at the ballot box.

    The ballot box is one means — the easiest in our view, once a majority want the revolutionary change to a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life — to gain control of political power that is currently used to uphold capitalism and which can be used to coordinate the social revolution. It should certainly not be ignored and not utilised.

    The changeover to socialism will also need to involve action in workplaces and organisation on that field, but not to stop production by going on strike but to keep it going by taking them over. In any event, capitalism cannot be overthrown solely by a general strike.

    Having said this, in the fairly unlikely event of those in power refusing to accept electoral defeat then a general strike would be one way to protest against this and confirm majority support for the changeover to socialism.


    But don’t you think the ballot box demands a majority of the populace to gain said class consciousness? I feel Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism” deserves a mention here – might there never be a majority wishing capitalism to end because it is easier to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism?

    Interesting – I agree that a strike could form part of a multi-armament approach.


    Alan – could collective ownership not be achieved overall but with local syndicalist decision making? Remember we are discussing this in the context of a post-capitalist world – it wouldn’t just be simple worker co-operatives fighting against corporations, but a fully syndicalised society.

    I agree with you that syndicalism has historically excluded non-workers – we must acknowledge that the proletariat extends far beyond this.


    could collective ownership not be achieved overall but with local syndicalist decision making?

    Then why still call it syndicalism because it wouldn’t be, would it, if economic democracy transcended the work-place?

    Many others have advocated different decision-making models and we shouldn’t be excluding those as options. Bookchin’s town-hall assemblies and his municipalism. The workers’ councilists. And across the world there are geographic and cultural applications of communities choosing how they are run in their own particular way. Horses for courses, what is best fitting, will bring diverse variety in how production and distribution will be administered and aresources allocated. I’m not saying there will not be coordination. I’m not suggesting autarky. But isn’t it a bit too early to devise the menus of the cook-shops as Marx once said. (we have seen how information technology has already changed the possiblities. Who knows what will be available in the future?) Best practice will prevail.

    it wouldn’t just be simple worker co-operatives fighting against corporations, but a fully syndicalised society.

    I think the real key here is the economic relationships and not the management structure.

    You probably have read by now our approach to a post-capitalist society – the end of the exchange economy, no more buying and selling, socially useful production. If syndics and co-ops retained waged-labour, if they continued what some call self-exploitation, endevoring to divide the surplus value extracted from their own labour to the members of the syndic, then all the problems of capitalism will be replicated. Syndicalism under capitalist conditions of the necessity of creating profit does not preclude various enterprises competing, if not locally but perhaps regionally and wider, and if such a co-op failed what then? Out of work? Or parasitical on other workers as some of the Soviet Union industries were?

    We see how the kibbutzim and Mondragon quickly hired non-co-op workers who didn’t share equally in it. Similarly, today in Bolivia, mining co-ops have become employers. The aim is to create a world where “from each according to ability, to each according to need”, and at all costs to avoid any confusion with the Stalinist “to each according to work” corruption of the principle.

    I’m sure when we come down to it, your own vision of a syndicalised society won’t be that much different from our aspirations for world socialism. We often take different paths in our political journey and acquire, on the way, certain baggage that we are reluctant to shed, and one is terminology and sometimes a view of workers’ past experience and history.

    As a final observation, we have believed it is going to be the class struggle that determines the rise of consciousness and bring about change. Just to put it out there, perhaps there might be other motivations for social revolution. Environmentalism, the rise of migrants and the imposition of controls on mobility, perhaps. We see the pandemic having an influence on how we think. I’m just idly speculating in the passing. But whatever might trigger off sociaty change, the means and methods of how we provide for ourselves is primary.

    I also recalled a James Connolly quote which i think is apt when we discuss the power of the general strike which i will papraphrase…workers with empty stomachs are up against employers with full wallets.

    The rich can weather a cessation of production far better than the poor. But again it is all down to organisation and as Seattle and Winnipeg showed, and even this pandemic, workers can run essential services without the bosses or the State.


    might there never be a majority wishing capitalism to end because it is easier to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism?


    Ideas tend to grow in exponential rather than linear fashion. Tiny though the socialist movement is at present, once it reaches a certain critical threshold I firmly believe its growth will start to accelerate or snowball. As it grows it modifies the general social climate of opinion in ways that would favour its further growth. So if 10% of the population were fully committed socialists that would imply a much larger fraction of the population would be on the way to becoming socialists themselves.

    The great challenge today is to reach that critical point of take-off. Historically we have never been even close to it. But there is no telling what the future holds


    But don’t you think the ballot box demands a majority of the populace to gain said class consciousness?

    We are now getting to the heart of the matter. The answer to your question is Yes. But this is because the existence of a socialist-minded majority is one of the preconditions of socialism. How could a non-coercive, non-state society involving a high degree of voluntary cooperation work unless most people wanted and understood it? People cannot be led or forced into socialism.

    It is precisely because we think there must be a majority in favour of socialism that we think using the ballot box makes sense. Without it, neither a minority-led insurrection nor a minority-led general strike could or would lead to socialism (your article has eloquently described where a minority-led seizure of power has led historically — a form of state capitalism as in the old USSR). With it, a general strike would be unnecessary (except perhaps as a back up). If there is a majority for socialism, why not take the easiest way of the ballot box as the way for the organised majority to express this and win control of political power (needed, if only to stop it being used against them)?

    Not all syndicalists take the view that obtaining a socialist majority under capitalism is impossible. But in its heyday, before WWI, its main advocates did and held that the “masses” needed to be led or pushed by an “active minority”. It us true that many of these were anarchists who had infiltrated and taken over the trade Union movement. It also explains why after WWI so many went over to Bolshevism and Leninism and not a few even to fascism as doctrines which attributed a key role to an active minority as a “vanguard” or “spearhead” (to use their terminology). A position we have always rejected and opposed.


    ALB wrote “so many went over to Bolshevism and Leninism … as doctrines which attributed a key role to an active minority as a “vanguard” or “spearhead” (to use their terminology). A position we have always rejected and opposed.”

    That’s not a true statement, ALB, regarding the SPGB and social production.
    The SPGB only argues for democracy in the social production of ‘widgets’ (or ‘stuff which can be touched/sensed’).
    Regarding the social production of ideas, the SPGB still attributes ‘a key role to an active minority’.
    That’s why the SPGB does not agree with democracy in science, or any other social activities based upon ‘ideas’.
    Marx, on the contrary, argued for all social production to be under democratic control, employing ‘theory and practice’. If the associated social producers don’t control their own ‘theory’, they’ll be compelled to ‘practice’ based upon the ‘theory’ of ‘an active minority’.

    • This reply was modified 1 month, 1 week ago by LBird.
    • This reply was modified 1 month, 1 week ago by LBird.

    Thank you all for your incredibly useful, interesting and measured comments – these are very beneficial to me.

    Robbo and ALB – and therein lies the problem, we are now threatened with the choice of either socialism or extinction and yet society’s consciousness is nowhere near that threshold. Slow incrementalism via liberal bourgeoisie democracy just isn’t good enough when the stakes are this high.

    Could it not be argued that it wasn’t necessarily a lack of an accepting majority in the USSR which doomed it to failure and state capitalism, but the fact that the old elite class was replaced by a new elite class and the masses were hoodwinked into an autocratic regime under the banner of proletarian liberation, without gaining ownership of anything. That and all the other reasons already discussed. Surely, if even a minority-led revolution led to incredible beneficial social change and transfer of power to the populace, then the masses will be convinced by the results e.g. certain aspects of Cuba.

    And I do want to note I agree with the SPGB on the concern of so-called “vanguardism”. This is the problematic aspect of Lenin’s approach which just replaces one minority oppressor with another, as Bakunin noted, all in the name of “we’re doing this on your behalf oh stupid citizenry”.

    I just keep failing to see how any transition from capitalism could ever realistically occur at the ballot box, without rapid regression whenever the next party takes over 4 or 5 years later. Said liberal democracy is a process of gradual reform, not revolution. Just look at the so-called “socialists” of the US Democratic party and how, once they’re in their comfortable senate/congress seats, they hideously morph into bourgeoisie politicians.

    Whereas violent revolution has yielded historical successes e.g. Haiti (just worth a mention).

    • This reply was modified 1 month, 1 week ago by MustaphaMond.

    Said liberal democracy is a process of gradual reform, not revolution.


    True but the the SPGB’s approach or attitude to the ballot box is totally different to that of liberal democracy or labour reformism. We don’t stand on a ticket of reforms, however well meaning. Our sole platform is the maximum programme of social revolution and nothing but.

    Keep in mind that we envisage that as the movement grows socialists will be active and organising in many other aspects of life apart from just electoralism . This would include for example trade unionism. I have a soft spot for the IWW and I would like to think the growth of our movement would also spill over and assist the growth of the IWW as well

    There are many other advantages to using the ballot box aside from those already mentioned It gives a reasonably accurate picture of the extent of support for socialism (which information the movement will certainly need). It also sends a clear message to those who are not in agreement with socialism that the writing is on the wall and as such is probably the most effective way of securing their compliance albeit grudgingly to the will of a socialist majority and thereby smoothing the passage to the new society, Also, for a large scale change over of this kind you need some mechanism to coordinate the changeover. I cannot really think of any else that could be as effective as the electoral approach in providing the signal to trigger that changeover on a mass socially coordinated basis


    The issue of the very apparent failure to achieve socialism is very much on the minds of ourselves. The consequence is mentioned by Marx in the Manifesto – the common ruin of the contending classes, made more stark by Engels and Luxemburg “socialism or barbarism”, which was later made more ominious Istvan Meszaros by who added “…barbarism if we are lucky”

    The question of how workers will acquire the appropriate consciousness is the Holy Grail and various theories have been put forward. None of the explanations have been satisfactory because the prove of the pudding is in the eating and we are still striving for it. Many eggs have been broken to make the omelette, but we are still to taste that omelette. We are entitled to ask where is it?

    We in the WSM has had the easier task – explaining why socialism has not come about, particularly in those countries you cite as having made a certain amount of social progress – but they had an exceedingly low bar.

    I think i can say that our membership have comradely disagreements in opinion over two models of revolution:
    (a) the snowball theory, that once a certain stage has been reached, socialist consciousness will grow at an exponential rate and a majority will be reached in a relatively short time, and
    (b) the avalanche theory, that once that certain stage has been reached mass socialist consciousness will come suddenly.

    Both these views reject the view that the growth of socialist consciousness will be a simple 1+1+1 progression as individual workers are “converted” one by one, which is attributed to us.

    Marx expected the working class to develop from a mere economic category (a “class in itself” ) into a revolutionary political actor (“class for itself”) — but although the process started it did get stuck on route. A “class consciousness” did develop among particular sections of the working class but this did not develop into a revolutionary socialist consciousness. It stopped short at trade-unionism and labourism. Even if a working class “for itself” has never developed, a class consciousness of a lesser sort did. Marx believed that, as the workers gained more experience of the class struggle and the workings of capitalism, it would become more consciously socialist and democratically organised by the workers themselves. The emergence of socialist understanding out of the experience of the workers could thus be said to be ‘spontaneous’ in the sense that it would require no intervention by people outside the working class to bring it about. Socialist propaganda and agitation would indeed be necessary, but would come to be carried out by workers themselves, whose socialist ideas would have been derived from an interpretation of their class experience of capitalism. The end result would be an independent movement of the socialist-minded and democratically organised working class aimed at winning control of political power in order to abolish capitalism. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

    I may differ on the emphasis of my fellow-members and i touched upon it in an earlier post. It is very probable that people develop into socialists through their involvements in all kinds of areas of the class struggle, ranging from strikes to anti-racist or anti-sexist groups to the environmentalist movements. We need to be aware that workers are doing things which, often unknowingly, are contributing to the evolution of class consciousness.

    In our critique of vanguardism and Leninism we mean something very specific which is to oppose surrendering power to an individual or group to change society on our behalf. We are not promoting the idea that there will not be better orators or write more lucidly than others. Teachers and authors aren’t necessarily leaders.

    The WSM see ourselves merely as an instrument of the working class. We do not seek to substitute ourselves for the class but we try to function to help generalise our fellow-workers experience of the class struggle, to make a total critique of their condition and of its causes, and to develop the mass revolutionary consciousness necessary if society is to be totally transformed. We reject an organisational role. What we want people to come to is the realisation that they should take over their workplaces, communities, and put themselves in a position to control all of the decisions that affect them directly, and to run things themselves.

    Whether it is the right approach or not, whether it will succeed or not, who can say, for those who offered better methods and easier ways have also failed to accomplish anything. All we can, in our own defence, claim, is our policies and actions haven’t damaged our fellow-workers. We haven’t gone ahead and imposed an “answer” upon them that was a wrong one.

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