Politics: Syndicalism and the General Strike (Part II)

Part 1 of this article can be read here.


In order to illustrate the power of the General Strike, the syndicalist Roller in his pamphlet The Social General Strike gives examples which point instead to the power in the hands of the state. He instances the General Strike which started in Alcoy, Spain, in 1874 where: “The accomplishment of the reconstruction, however, was prevented by the troops, which were sent by the government to reconquer the city.” (Page 26; italics ours.) Next, the eight-hours movement in America, which culminated in the Haymarket tragedy in May 1886; here again the Government showed its teeth and the labour movement suffered. Referring to another general strike, at Barcelona in 1902, he concludes with the fatuous remark: “The comrades of Barcelona finally were defeated, nevertheless they proved the invincibility of the General Strike.”


Before leaving Roller we will give one more illustration of the influence on his outlook of anarchist ideas which, incidentally, are still propagated by the superficial and the impatient.


It is an indisputed fact that a brave deed, be it one of a single individual, or of an energetic enthusiastic minority, arouses thousands from their slumber, and with one thrilling shock turns them desperate fighters for the good cause, while ten years of theoretic agitation could not tear them away from their apathetic condition.

This was implicit in it Blanquism and propaganda by deed. It is another way of saying: “The time for theory has passed, the day for action has come.” All action is based on theory, but when the theories are out of tune with the facts as in the case of the syndicalists, the action is likely to lead to disaster.


The syndicalists were also opposed to democracy. A. D. Lewis in Syndicalism and the General Strike quotes Emile Pouget’s views as follows:


Syndicalism and democracy are the two opposite poles which exclude and neutralize each other . . . This is because democracy is a social superfluity, a parasitic and external excrescence, while Syndicalism is a logical manifestation of the growth of life.


Another syndicalist work, Syndicalism and Revolution, says:


It is better to have an active group who know how to carry the masses and turn them in the right direction by their words and actions.


Sorel also makes bitter attacks on democracy. In fact all minority groups have always claimed to be acting for the mass of the people, whether the latter recognize it or not. The only movement in the interests of the great majority that can ever be successful is one they understand, desire, and freely and willingly work for.


In time, the CGT began to lean more towards political action and reform policies. After bitter experiences, belief in the General Strike lost its strength and the influence of ideas of sabotage and violence declined; until the movement paralleled that of the English trade unions that had absorbed numerous craft unions into a comparatively few large organizations. Then, after the first World War, the propaganda of Bolshevism gave new life to the old futile ideas.


The European syndicalist movement received considerable impetus from developments in America that culminated in the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World. The leaders of the radical movement in America, both political and industrial, were misled into believing that this movement was going to sweep all before it; they therefore wanted to get in and influence it with their particular ideas. Hence, like the old International, it was a hotch-potch of conflicting ideas and soon fell to pieces from internal quarrels.


The closed-shop attitude of the American Federation of Labour was stirring up revolt among unskilled workers and those organized in the Western Federation of Miners, the American Labour Union, and the American Railway Union. The AF of L’s policy of collective bargaining and separate contracts led to one union scabbing on another; the leaders of the AF of L acted on the principle that there was a harmony of interest between employers and employed, and they urged that the strike should be replaced by a mutual contract. High initiation fees (up to £100) and high membership dues closed the unions to almost all but the highly- paid skilled workers, who were a peculiarly American product. The masses of poorly paid men, women and children, as well as black workers, were practically ignored by the AF of L and had little chance of rising out of their depressed condition.In January 1905 a few prominent trade unionists, some of whom were members of the Socialist Labor Party and the Socialist Party of America, decided to call a conference to set on foot an industrial union, based upon the class struggle, that would include all workers, skilled and unskilled, white and coloured, on an equal basis. The conference in June and July 1905 produced the Industrial Workers of the World. It was attended by anarchists, advocates of the General Strike, and advocates of political action; the result was a programme that endeavoured to meet these conflicting views. The futility of this compromise programme soon became evident, and after a few years the anti-political elements captured the movement. It was reduced to a few thousand members and, after the 1914-18 war, most of what was left was swallowed in the Communist movement.

At the founding conference of the IWW the General Strike was scarcely mentioned: the only two to do so were the anarchists Klemensic and Lucy Parsons. The latter referred to it in an emotional moment when speaking of the Haymarket affair and the execution of her husband. It may be mentioned that she, like many other delegates, had been carrying on a prolonged and unselfish struggle against the terrible conditions suffered by the workers.

The most controversial proposal adopted by the conference was that the workers must struggle to “take and hold that which they produce by their labour through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party”. The most persistent and acomplished defender of this standpoint was Daniel De Leon. His standpoint can be summarized as follows. Both political and economic organization are necessary, but the latter is more important because only it can “take and hold”. If the workers take political power out of the hands of the capitalists, the latter still retain their economic power. Political power is a reflex of economic power, and the former cannot reach fruition until the latter exists: the economic power of the workers can only be obtained through industrial unionism which organizes industry on a plan that gives the workers control.

In laying down this position De Leon made an astonishing statement. He repeated it a few days later, in more detail, in a speech which was published by the SLP in 1919 under the title Socialist Reconstruction of Society.

In no country, outside of the United States, is this theory applicable; in no country, outside of the United States, is the theory rational. It is irrational and. therefore, inapplicable in all other countries, with the possible exception of Great Britain and the rest of the English speaking world, because no country but the United States has reached the stage of full-orbed Capitalism—economic, political, and social—that the United States has attained. In other words, no other country is ripe for the execution of Marxian revolutionary tactics . . .

Later on, history played its little joke. The Bolsheviks put forward the above argument but based it on exactly opposite grounds—that it was because Russia was a backward country that circumstances made it the country where the Marxian theory of “tactics” (as defined by them) was first applicable!

According to De Leon, the political organization is not capable of organizing production. “Shoemaking, bricklaying, miners, railroad men” and the like were jumbled together in each parliamentary district. Only the organization based on industries is capable of industrial control, and therefore “taking and holding”: “Where the General Executive Board of the Industrial Workers of the World will sit there will be the nation’s capital.” (Socialist Reconstruction of Society.) How the workers are to get control of industry without first getting control of political power De Leon nowhere explains; he makes the nebulous argument that the socialist ballot is the emblem of right but is useless unless backed by industrial might to enforce it. The serpent of reform raises its head in his argument that, while the political movement must make a clean sweep, the industrial one can take over production gradually, a little at a time.

De Leon’s defence of industrial unionism sounds curious when taken in conjunction with an entirely different contention which he argued in two of his most popular lectures:

Obviously, independent, class-conscious political action is the head of Labour’s lance. Useful as any other weapon may be, that weapon is the determining factor. Entrenched in the public powers, the Capitalist Class command the field. None but the political weapon can dislodge the usurpers and enthrone the Working Class; that is to say, emancipate the workers and rear the Socialist Republic.

(Two Pages from Roman History, Edinburgh, 1908.)

De Leon is an instance of the contradictory positions into which those are led who set out to build large followings by compromise, instead of waiting upon the growth of the workers’ knowledge. His difficulties were partly due to his treatment of the industrial and political movements as two absolute entities. He overlooked the fact that when the workers are sufficiently class-conscious to capture the political machinery for the purpose of introducing Socialism, the same people are in the industrial organizations and will have used their knowledge to bring these organizations to a similar state of development.

The total number of workers represented at the 1905 conference was nearly 50,000, but the main voting strength came from the Western Federation of Miners and the American Labour Union. There were a number of delegates representing small unions, and a number representing only themselves. The form of organization adopted for the IWW was “Thirteen industrial divisions subdivided into industrial unions of closely kindred industries”. A chart was subsequently published in a pamphlet by Trautmann, One Big Union, which gave a picture of the proposed constitution. Its final working-out deprived the ordinary members of real power. Delegates were appointed to committees, which in turn appointed delegates to higher committees, and so on in the fashion later adopted by the Russian Soviet constitution; ultimately, the officials of the Central Board were those wielding controlling authority.

There was a general subservience to the leadership idea, and the confused attitudes were expressed in a statement by a committee, which defined the co-operative commonwealth as

a system of society in which there shall be neither exploiter nor exploited, and in which he who contributes to the well-being of society shall receive the equivalent of the full product of his labour.

This attitude had been pulverized by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. According to it, those who produced most received most and those who produced nothing—the sick, crippled and aged, and children—received nothing! Also there would be no provision for future production. Behind the statement, however, lurks the syndicalist attitude—the mines for the miners, the factories for the factory workers, etc.

The IWW, like the syndicalist movement in general, was an attempt to force the pace without regard to, and in spite of, the backwardness of the workers. Failing to realize the significance of the phrase that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself, they set on foot leadership movements that failed to achieve their avowed objects just because of the workers’ backwardness. Even the methods they advocate for developing working-class consciousness are such that they fail in their purpose and only breed confusion. A common argument was mentioned by Trautmann in his One Big Union pamphlet:

Equipped with the power of an industrial organization, with the knowledge gained in the everyday struggle against the oppressors, they will successfully strive for a higher standard of life-conditions, within this system, and they can master things and forces so that they will reach the final goal of their efforts—complete industrial emancipation.

As the industrial union movement claimed to be out for the overthrow of the system but as, at the same time, it professed to be able to fight the workers’ battle for better conditions more successfully, it would draw into its ranks those who agreed with its object and also those who thought it offered a better medium for gaining improvements in conditions. If the movement attracted a large number of workers, the first group would of necessity be very small, while the second would be so large that it would swamp the organization and turn it into a pure and simple trade-union movement.

But the chance of large bodies of workers deserting established unions for small organizations that can show no evidence of power, which is an immediate question for them, is poor. The IWW anticipated getting round this by striving to organize the unskilled workers who were excluded from the established unions; but these were just the workers who stood least chance of stopping the wheels of industry, and who also were not greatly attracted by the object and the grandiose scheme of organization. Although the IWW had some success at first and caused some employers a pain, it never reached threatening proportions and therefore could not offer the workers the alleged experience in the day-to-day struggle that was to clear their heads. (In fact the concentration on day-to-day struggles has usually the opposite effect.)


Syndicalism as a movement has a number of objectionable features from the working-class point of view. Its principal weapon the General Strike, if it could be as successful as its advocates hoped, would only result in social disaster. Its vision of the future is mixed, envisaging either groups of autonomous communities or a society split into self-contained industries. Its propaganda drives it to include violence. And violence kills free discussion, attracts the worst elements, breeds disunity, invites repression, and plays to the emotion rather than to the intelligence; it develops fear instead of conviction and encourages mutual distrust; it encourages the worship of leaders and endows them with an inordinate amount of power. Finally, syndicalism, by ignoring the source of state power and its effect, is incapable of enabling the workers to achieve their emancipation from capitalism and establish Socialism.