Building a New World from the Shell of the Old


In 1906 the main French trade union confederation of the time adopted at its Congress in Amiens a charter which, spreading far beyond France, became the doctrinal basis of a theory of unionism and revolution known as “syndicalism” (this is in fact merely the ordinary French word for trade unionism, so in France this doctrine is known as “revolutionary syndicalism“).

This doctrine has played an important historical role in working class thinking and organisation. Feeding upon the disillusionment of parliamentary action that had not brought any fundamental difference in the lot of the worker, in spite of the showy promises, and with parliamentary leaders deserting to the enemy camp, syndicalists claimed that their method would by-pass political apostasy and they vigorously pressed their claim that the general strike was a short and sharp road to social salvation for the workers. Industry was to be brought to a standstill by the workers not only refusing to work but also engaging in the wholesale sabotage of machinery and transport facilities. It was a movement to secure ownership of the means of production by the workers through “direct action“.

The syndicalist unions were seen as providing the means both of defending workers’ interests under capitalism and, once capitalism had been overthrown in a general strike, of administering the new society. Syndicalism was powerful in France in the years leading up to the First World War, to a lesser extent in Britain during the same period and in the USA with the Industrial Workers of the World (The Wobblies), established in 1905 as ‘one great industrial union…founded on the class struggle’.

Syndicalism was influential in Spain during its Civil War, but is now only active anywhere as anarcho-syndicalism.

 Although the sincerity of the syndicalists’ desire to end capitalism cannot be questioned, their understanding of the future society to replace it can be. If the syndicalists were content merely to argue that within the framework of capitalism it might be a more effective form of resistance to the encroachments of capital than the present craft trade unions, there would be little quarrel between the World Socialist Movement and themselves. But for many syndicalism and industrial unionism is something far more. It constitutes a new contribution to proletarian politics. But, it does not constitute any new addition to socialist ideas. In fact, it is erroneous, when examined in light of the workings of capitalism. With syndicalism, in general, the WSM has always insisted that the structures and tactics of organisations that the working class create to combat the class war will be there own decision and will necessarily be dependent on particular situations.

 The World Socialist Movement avoided the mistake of the syndicalists, the IWW, the American SLP – and later of the Communist Party of GB during the “Third Period” after 1929 – of “dual unionism“, i.e. of trying to form “revolutionary” unions to rival the existing “reformist” unions (although some WSM  members have been involved, on an individual basis, in breakaway unions.) It is often overlooked by the critics of the WSM that many in its companion party, the Socialist Party of Canada, were instrumental in the founding of the One Big Union.

What we have stated is that: “The particular form of economic organisation through which the struggle is conducted is one which the circumstances of the struggle must mainly determine. The chief thing is to maintain the struggle whilst capitalism lasts.The spirit of the craft form of Trade Union is generally one which tends to cramp the activity and outlook of the workers, each craft thinking itself something apart from all others, particularly from the non-skilled workers. But capitalist society itself tends to break down the barriers artificially set up between sections of the working class, as many of the so-called “aristocrats of labour” have been made painfully aware. The industrial form of union should tend to bring the various sections of workers in an industry together, and thus help level the identity of interests between all workers so organised.”

History has borne this approach out with the rise and growth of what was once called “new unionism” of amalgamated general unions and in America during the 30s with the birth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations to challenge the established American Federation of Labor.

In suggesting that society should be organised on the basis of trade unions syndicalists merely project into socialism the industrial and professional divisions of workers which exist under capitalism. Since socialism is based on the social ownership (= ownership by society as a whol) of the means of production, the trade union ownership proposed by the syndicalists (the mines for the miners, railways for the rail workers) was not socialism at all but a modified form of sectional ownership. A society run by syndicates/ industrial unions would be a society which would perpetuate the occupational divisions which capitalism imposed on workers. Such a form of organisation would divide the workers on the basis of the industries in which they were engaged, with the inevitable consequence that the industrial interest must triumph over the social interest which socialism so fundamentally demands. In addition, the relations between the separate union-run industries, it has been argued, would have to be regulated either by some central administration, which would amount to a government and so give rise to a new ruling class or by some form of commercial exchange transaction (even if conducted in labour-time vouchers rather than money as many syndicalists proposed.) In other words, a syndicalist society would be a sort of capitalism run by the unions. When plenty and abundance become the order of the day, it completely changes people’s behaviour and attitudes. But to show how far from having any grasp of socialism the syndicalists are, and how they are thinking in terms of capitalism, consider their notion that workers, under socialism, get the full product of their toil. In the first place, there are no “workers” under socialism. There is no working-class section of society, but all are equally members of a class-free society. No problem of equal share with equal work could possibly exist in socialism; people in a sane society would not be that limited in vision or behaviour. Just the reverse, the inspiration of socialism is that, being social animals, people give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs (without any thought of getting their “full” share — a meaningless concept in a sane society).

The likes of Tom Mann, Jim Larkin and James Connolly were what was called at the time syndicalists, which meant someone who believed that the way forward for workers was combined industrial action on the basis of “an injury to one is an injury to all“. In practice it meant that other workers – ideally, all other workers – should take action in support of any group of workers on strike by blacking goods produced by or supplied to their employers – the “sympathetic strike“. It can be conceded that the industrial union has advantages as economic organisations of resistance for workers within capitalism over craft and trade unions. But they went on to project the industrial union as a revolutionary weapon.

Syndicalists such as they sought to combine all workers in each industry, to raise them all nationally and internationally, so as to take over control of the whole economic system. In that way the proletariat could fix the number of working days, the abolition of employers, capitalists and government and the ideal of the co-operative commonwealth will be realised. This was all very well in theory but to be effective it would require a very high degree of class consciousness, so high in fact that, if it existed, workers would be in a position to take direct political action to end capitalism. The syndicalists, however, advocated the use of this tactic by workers who were not fully class-conscious, i. e., not socialist-minded and who still thought in sectional rather than class terms, plus leaving the state in the hands of the representatives of the capitalist class.

The syndicalist movement claim to be out for the overthrow of the system but yet, at the same time, profess to be able to fight the workers’ battle for better conditions more successfully, it would therefore 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 organisation and turn it into a pure and simple trade union movement. We also have to be minded that even within syndicalist unions the more effective the union is in achieving victories against capitalism, the more the non-radical workers will join it for the trade union benefits and this could just as likely water down its revolutionary aspects as to militantise those new recruits. And it is also just as likely that they will desert the union if the revolutionary aspirations of the union hinder the practicalities of the daily bread and butter fight. The chance of large numbers of workers, pragmatic proletarians, resigning from established unions for small radical organisations that can show no evidence of power, which is an immediate question for them, is poor. Getting round this by striving to organise the unskilled non-unionised workers is reaching out to just the workers who stand the least chance of stopping the wheels of industry. Another factor working against its success was that under capitalism the employers always have the whip-hand. If they so choose they can, because they own so much wealth, always break any strike by starving the workers back to work. It was James Connolly who spoke of full wallets against empty stomachs. Militant class struggle has clear limits to what can be achieved and most workers know this full well.

The General Strike

The backbone of syndicalism was the general strike (folded arms) as a proposed means to achieve the workers’ emancipation. The general strike cannot be used to get socialism. We have adopted a frankly hostile policy to this idea of a revolutionary role of the general strike for the simple reason that we are a socialist party. To get socialism requires a class conscious working class democratically capturing state power to prevent that power being used against them. Workers who would not vote for socialism will not strike for it. Whilst the strike, local or industrial, may effect improvement for the time, slavery remains. Whilst the threat of a general strike may induce concessions, it cannot bring a solution. The best results of economic unity can only be effected by class-conscious toilers who recognise the need for class action, class union, for working class ends; who realise that, as the road to emancipation lies in control of political power, political action is a vital necessity. Time after time the power of governments to smash big strikes has been demonstrated. Sometimes naked power has been used, sometimes concessions are made, and sometimes the workers have been starved into submission. It is impossible for the working class to take and hold industry as long as the state is in the hands of the capitalist class. Moreover, this power is placed in the hands of the capitalist class by the workers themselves.

The capitalists rule today because the workers sanction and uphold the existing form of property relationships. All of capitalism’s power, including even its coercive power, is in the hands of the working class.

Our task at the moment is to carry on the work of socialist education. The WSM welcome any upsurge in the militancy and resistance and organisation of our class. But we also know, from bitter experience, that work of a more patient, more political kind is also needed. The class war must be fought but we must also seek to stop the skirmishing of the class struggle by winning the class war. That means that the working class as a whole must understand the issues, and organise and fight for these ends themselves. Here is where socialists have their most vital contribution to make to make clear the alternative is not mere utopianism, but an important ingredient in inspiring successful struggle.

Syndicalism to be effective would require a very high degree of class consciousness, so high in fact that, if it existed, workers would be in a position to take direct political action to end capitalism. Yet the syndicalist case was being advocated for use by workers who were not fully class-conscious, i. e., not socialist-minded and who still thought in sectional rather than class terms, and leaving the state in the hands of the representatives of the capitalist class. All the industrial unions in the world are powerless in face of the armed forces of the modern states with their machine guns, cannon and tanks. On the economic field, the working class is impotent. What do they possess, aside from their muscles and brains? If they go out on a strike, who starves first, the workers or the owners? They have two alternatives: either starve or else be driven back to work by the state’s forces of coercion. workers do not have “economic power” as long as they are wage slaves.

Economic power has no meaning when it is confined to just withholding your labour power from production, which still leaves economic power in the hands of the masters. Economic power flows from having political control of the state machinery.

Industrial Workers of the World

Our official position towards the Industrial Workers of the World as long as the IWW behaves and acts as a workers union then its up to individual members of the World Socialist Movement (WSM) to decide whether or not it is in their interests to join. Many members have joined it.

Trade Unions and the inherent contradictions that sometimes arise has always been something the WSM has always been aware it has taken debate and discussion to agree a shared accepted position. It, of course, recognised the defensive nature of trade unionism, and the associated tendencies of syndicalism and industrial unionism with their limitations to resist the encroachments of capital and state power.

In the past, during the formative years of both organisations, the IWW was seen as more of an anti-political,  anarchist organisation, promoting industrial unionism as a panacea for working class problems, which the WSM disavowed as sectional and undemocratic, since it was about industrial sectors controlling the means of production and distribution and not society as a whole as well as also excluding those outside the work-place.

But the WSM now accepts that in more recent times, the IWW can be better described as an a-political organisation, since it itself has changed its approach to the class struggle and for all practical purposes now acts as a democratic, progressive, inspirational and educational workers’ union that can be recommended for membership when it is to the workers advantage, which is the majority of the time and situations. No longer being divisive with outright opposition to the pure and simple reformist craft-based trade unions by adopting the dual-card policy was another change which differentiates the present IWW from its previous position that the WSM criticised.

The Canadian OBU did accept the importance of the political struggle unlike the IWW and the prominent participation of members of the Socialist Party of Canada within it, demonstrates that the WSM never stood aloof to the industrial scene and class war, as many distractors and critics keep repeating until its become a myth and urban legend for many on the Left. Many will probably agree with James Connolly regards the 1908 schism and rejection of the political action clause, he made clear his stance that when the time actually came “it would be impossible to prevent the workers taking it”

Decisions about industrial disputes and work-place union agreements are to be made by strike committees and those on picket lines and those directly involved and not by outside-the-union political parties has always been the counsel of the WSM.

The attitude of the WSM  is that a “revolutionary” union does not make revolutionaries but that it is revolutionary union members which make the “revolutionary” union. The more effective the union is in achieving victories against capitalism, the more the non-radical workers will join it for the trade union benefits and water down its revolutionary aspects. Just as they will desert it if the revolutionary aspirations hinder the practicalities of the daily bread and butter fight. And that point also brought the WSM into disagreement with the De Leonist Socialist Labor Party and their Socialist Industrial Unions. The WSM always insisted that there will be a separation and that no political party should, or can successfully use, unions as an economic wing, until a time very much closer to the revolution when there are substantial and sufficient numbers of socialist conscious workers. And for the foreseeable that is sadly far off in the future.

So its not a formal position to the IWW that has been taken by the WSM but an informal one and a practical one, which can change if the IWW decide that certain ideas should take precedence over others or again become dominated by one particular strand of political thought, rather than an open and inclusive workers organisation which exists now. It will be exercised by WSM members as individuals.