Whatever its theoretical mistakes, syndicalism has a place in the history of the working class, especially in the “Latin” countries (France, Italy, Spain, South America). Syndicalisme is in fact the French word for trade-unionism and it was in France, where it was known as “revolutionary syndicalism” to distinguish it from ordinary trade-unionism, that the doctrine originated. In 1906 the main French trade union grouping at that time, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), adopted the famous Charter of Amiens.
The doctrine is also sometimes called “anarcho-syndicalism” because many of its leading advocates were anarchists. The Charter of Amiens, however, which inspired similar trade-union movements in other countries, was not as “anarchist” as it is sometimes made out to be. It did not repudiate political action, as anarchists do, but merely said that political considerations should not enter into the trade union struggle as this would divide, and so weaken, workers in face of their employers. After stating that the very fact of having to work for wages imposes on workers “whatever their opinions or their political and philosophical views, the duty to belong to the essential grouping which is the trade union”, it went on:
Therefore, so far as individual members are concerned, Congress declares complete freedom for every Trade Unionist to participate, outside of the trade organisation, in any forms of struggle in accordance with his political or philosophical views, confining itself only to asking him, in return, not to introduce into the trade union the opinions which he professes outside it.
This of course is a sound principle and has always been the basis of participation of individual members of the SPGB in trade unions.
The original French CGT had an attitude towards the state — complete independence from it, as well as from all political parties — which was also correct. In their view, the role of a trade union was to defend working class wages and conditions through direct negotiations with employers and not by bringing pressure to bear on the state to pass reform measures. This elementary principle of trade unionism has been largely forgotten today (though not by socialists active in their unions). As a result the TUC in Britain, for instance, has become more of a reformist, than a trade union, organisation as well as becoming partially integrated into the state machine.
The great mistake of French syndicalism was its theory that capitalism could be overthrown by a more or less spontaneous general strike, whereas in fact this can only be done by a working class majority, which wants and understands socialism, taking democratic action. Syndicalism was also confused — and its remnants still are — over the nature of the society that should be established in place of capitalism. Its declaration, in the Charter of Amiens, that “the trade union, now a unit of resistance, will in the future be the unit of production and distribution, the basis of social organisation” was wrong, as it was to carry over into future society the occupational divisions of workers under capitalism. Socialism, as the word itself implies, is the ownership and control of the means of production by society as a whole. Trade union ownership and control, as implied by such syndicalist slogans as “the mines to the miners”, would not be socialism.
Syndicalism died out as the predominant doctrine in France with the First World War, which a majority of CGT leaders and militants supported, and the Russian revolution, which most of the minority, mistakenly believed to be the overthrow of capitalism they had been working for.