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Anarcho-syndicalism (also referred to as revolutionary syndicalism) is connected with ideas from anarchism which views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as a method for workers in capitalist society to gain control of an economy and with that control, influence broader society. Syndicalism proponents consider their economic theories a strategy for facilitating worker self-activity and as an alternative co-operative economic system with democratic values and production centered on meeting human needs.
Followers of those ideas view themselves as a potential force for revolutionary social change, combining a general defense of rights with longer term strategies of creating class consciousness and the capacity for action necessary before capitalism and the state can be replaced with a new democratically self-managed society.
The basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism are solidarity, and direct action (meaning action undertaken without the intervention of third parties such as politicians, bureaucrats and arbitrators) and direct democracy, or workers' self-management. The end goal of anarcho-syndicalism is to abolish the wage system, which adherents regard as wage slavery. Anarcho-syndicalist theory therefore generally focuses on the labour movement, though there have been moves to broaden anarcho-syndicalism in the direction of a syndicalist intersectionality.
Anarcho-syndicalists regard the state as a profoundly anti-worker institution, ironically agreeing with James Madison that the primary function of government is to "protect the minority of the opulent from the majority." They view the primary purpose of the state as being the defense of private property and therefore of economic, social and political privilege, even when such defence denies its citizens the ability to enjoy material independence and the social autonomy which springs from it. In contrast to other bodies of thought (Marxism–Leninism being a prime example), anarcho-syndicalists deny that there can be any kind of workers' state, or a state which acts in the interests of workers, as opposed to those of the powerful, and that any state with the intention of empowering the workers will inevitably work to empower itself or the existing elite at the expense of the workers. Reflecting the anarchist philosophy from which it draws its primary inspiration, anarcho-syndicalism holds to the idea that power corrupts.
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that direct action , action carried out by workers, as opposed to indirect action, such as electing a representative to a government position — would allow workers to liberate themselves.
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers’ organizations, that oppose the wage system will eventually form the basis of a new society and should be self-managing. They should not have bosses or "business agents"; rather, the workers alone should decide on that which affects them.
The word syndicalism comes from the French word syndicat which means trade union (syndic meaning administrator), from the Latin word syndicus which in turn comes from the Greek word σύνδικος (syndikos) which means caretaker of an issue.
Hubert Lagardelle wrote that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon laid out the fundamental theories of anarcho-syndicalism, through his repudiation of both capitalism and the state, his flouting of political government, his idea of free, autonomous economic groups, and his view of struggle, not pacifism, as the core of humanity.
The earliest expressions of anarcho-syndicalist structure and methods were formulated in the International Workingmen's Association or First International, particularly in the Jura federation. The First International, however, split between two main tendencies within the organization over the question of political, parliamentary action; the anarchist wing represented by Mikhail Bakunin and the socialist wing represented by Karl Marx. Marxists would form mass-based labour and social democratic parties throughout Europe (initially grouped around the Second International), with major strongholds in Germany and England. Some Marxists, notably Anton Pannekoek, would formulate positions remarkably close to anarcho-syndicalism through council communism (see main article Anarchism and Marxism).
In 1895, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in France expressed fully the organizational structure and methods of revolutionary syndicalism influencing labour movements the world over. The CGT was modeled on the development of the Bourse de Travail (labour exchange), a workers' central organization which would encourage self-education and mutual aid, and facilitate communication with local workers' syndicates. Through a general strike, workers would take control of industry and services and self-manage society and facilitate production and consumption through the labour exchanges. The Charter of Amiens, adopted by the CGT in 1906, represents a key text in the development of revolutionary syndicalism rejecting parliamentarianism and political action in favour of revolutionary class struggle. The Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (SAC) (in Swedish the Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation), formed in 1910, is a notable example of an anarcho-syndicalist union influenced by the CGT. Today, the SAC is one the largest anarcho-syndicalist unions in the world in proportion to the population, with some strongholds in the public sector.
The International Workers Association, formed in 1922, is an international anarcho-syndicalist federation of various labour unions from different countries. At its peak, the International Workers Association represented millions of workers and competed directly for the hearts and minds of the working class with social democratic unions and parties.
The Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo played and still plays a major role in the Spanish labour movement. It was also a decisive force in the Spanish Civil War, organizing worker militias and facilitating the collectivization of vast sections of the industrial, logistical, and communications infrastructure, principally in Catalonia. Another Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union, the Confederacion General del Trabajo de España, is now one of the largest unions in Spain.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), although not anarcho-syndicalist, were informed by developments in the broader revolutionary syndicalist milieu at the turn of the 20th century. At its founding congress in 1905, influential members with strong anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist sympathies like Thomas J. Haggerty, William Trautmann, and Lucy Parsons contributed to the union's overall revolutionary syndicalist orientation.
Although the terms anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism are often used interchangeably, the anarcho-syndicalist label was not widely used until the early 1920s (some credit Sam Mainwaring with coining the term). “The term ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ only came into wide use in 1921-1922 when it was applied polemically as a pejorative term by communists to any syndicalists…who opposed increased control of syndicalism by the communist parties.” In fact, the original statement of aims and principles of the International Workers Association (drafted in 1922) refers not to anarcho-syndicalism, but to revolutionary syndicalism or revolutionary unionism, depending on the translation.
Relationship with party politics
Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. Just as the employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labor as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were observable in the workers' organizations, so governments also are always inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like have long existed, governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or to reinterpret them by juridical hair-splitting. Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace . Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution.
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The anarcho-syndicalist orientation of many early American labour unions arguably played an important role in the formation of the American political spectrum, most significantly of the Industrial Workers of the World. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not have a major labour-based political party. This has not always been the case. In 1912, for example, Eugene Debs (a founding member of the IWW) polled 6% of the popular vote as the Socialist Party presidential candidate — a significant portion of the popular vote considering that this was 8 years before the adoption of universal suffrage in the U.S. Some political scientists would, in part, attribute the lack of an American labour party to the single member plurality electoral system, which tends to favour a two-party system. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Duverger's law.
Controversially, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo participated in the Spanish Republican Popular Front government in the Spanish Civil War. In November 1936, four anarchist ministers — Garcia Oliver, Federica Montseny, Joan Peiró, and Juan López — accepted positions in the government. This move was criticized by rank-and-file groups like the Friends of Durruti.
The French CGT leadership under Léon Jouhaux faced similar criticism from its own left-wing, after its close collaboration with Government during the First World War and, later, the Popular Front (France); However, unlike the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists, on both occasions the CGT stopped short of full Cabinet participation.
Rudolf Rocker is one of the most influential figures in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. He dedicated himself to the organisation of Jewish immigrant workers in London's East End and led the 1912 garment workers strike. He outlined a view of the origins of the movement, what it sought, and why it was important to the future of labour in his 1938 pamphlet Anarcho-Syndicalism. In his article Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Rocker points out that the anarcho-syndicalist union has a dual purpose, "1. To enforce the demands of the producers for the safeguarding and raising of their standard of living; 2. To acquaint the workers with the technical management of production and economic life in general and prepare them to take the socio-economic organism into their own hands and shape it according to socialist principles." In short, laying the foundations of the new society "within the shell of the old." Up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, anarcho-syndicalist unions and organizations were the dominant actors in the revolutionary left.
Noam Chomsky, who was influenced by Rocker, wrote the introduction to a modern edition of "Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice". A member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Chomsky is a self-described Anarcho-Syndicalist, a position which he sees as the appropriate application of classical liberal political theory to contemporary industrial society:
'Now a federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organization for an advanced technological society in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it to be a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will.'
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- International Workers Association (IWA-AIT)
- Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT-AIT) Spain
- Federação Operária do Rio Grande do Sul - Confederação Operária Brasileira (FORGS-COB-AIT) Brazil
- Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA-AIT) Argentina* Associação Internacional dos Trabalhadores - Secção Portuguesa (AIT-SP) Portugal
- Anarho-sindikalistička inicijativa (ASI-MUR) Serbia
- Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter-Union (FAU) Germany
- Konfederatsiya Revolyutsionnikh Anarkho-Sindikalistov (KRAS-IWA) Russia
- Mreža anarhosindikalista i anarhosindikalistkinja (MASA) Croatia
- Norsk Syndikalistisk Forbund (NSF-IAA) Norway
- Priama Akcia (PA-IWA) Slovakia
- Solidarity Federation (SF-IWA) Britain
- Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI) Italy
- Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) USA
- Ελευθεριακή Συνδικαλιστική Ένωση (ΕΣΕ) Libertarian Syndicalist Union (ESE) Greece
- Freie ArbeiterInnen Union (FAU) Switzerland
- SKT Siberian Confederation of Labour
- Swedish Anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation (Syndikalistiska Ungdomsförbundet, SUF) Sweden
- Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation, SAC) Sweden
- Anarcho-Syndicalistische Bond (ASB) The Netherlands
Criticisms and responses
As "practical" and "realistic" as anarcho-syndicalism may seem, it represents in my view an archaic ideology rooted in a narrowly economistic notion of bourgeois interest, indeed of a sectorial interest as such. It relies on the persistence of social forces like the factory system and the traditional class consciousness of the industrial proletariat that are waning radically in the Euro-American world in an era of indefinable social relations and ever-broadening social concerns. Broader movements and issues are now on the horizon of modern society that, while they must necessarily involve workers, require a perspective that is larger than the factory, trade union, and a proletarian orientation.
Bookchin has said that it prioritizes the interests of the working class, instead of communal freedom for society as a whole; and that this view ultimately prevents a true revolution. He argues that in instances like the Spanish Revolution, it was in spite of the syndicalist-minded CNT leadership that the revolution occurred.
Direct action, being one of the main staples of anarcho-syndicalism, would extend into the political sphere according to its supporters. To them, the labour council is the federation of all workplace branches of all industries in a geographical area "territorial basis of organisation linkage brought all the workers from one area together and fomented working-class solidarity over and before corporate solidarity." Rudolf Rocker argues:
based on the principles of Federalism, on free combination from below upwards, putting the right of self-determination of every member above everything else and recognising only the organic agreement of all on the basis of like interests and common convictions.
Thus, anarcho-syndicalism is not apolitical but instead sees political and economic activity as the same. Unlike the propositions of some of its critics, anarcho-syndicalism is different from reformist union activity in that it aims to obliterate capitalism "[Anarcho-syndicalism] has a double aim: with tireless persistence, it must pursue betterment of the working class's current conditions. But, without letting themselves become obsessed with this passing concern, the workers should take care to make possible and imminent the essential act of comprehensive emancipation: the expropriation of capital."
While collectivist and communist anarchists criticize syndicalism as having the potential to exclude the voices of citizens and consumers outside of the union, anarcho-syndicalists argue that labor councils will work outside of the workplace and within the community to encourage community and consumer participation in economic and political activity (even workers and consumers outside of the union or nation) and will work to form and maintain the institutions necessary in any society such as schools, libraries, homes, etc. Murray Bookchin argues:
[a]t the same time that syndicalism exerts this unrelenting pressure on capitalism, it tries to build the new social order within the old. The unions and the 'labour councils' are not merely means of struggle and instruments of social revolution; they are also the very structure around which to build a free society. The workers are to be educated [by their own activity within the union] in the job of destroying the old propertied order and in the task of reconstructing a stateless, libertarian society. The two go together.
In popular culture
- One of the main characters in Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh (1939), Larry Slade is an ex-anarcho-syndicalist.
- Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed (1974) shows a fictional functioning Anarcho-syndicalist society. The novel is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia".
- The 1975 comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail contains a scene wherein King Arthur encounters uncooperative peasants who are part of an autonomous, anarcho-syndicalist commune.
- The April 28, 1987 episode of the U.S. series Max Headroom entitled "War" featured a terrorist group known as the "White Brigade" who was dedicated to 'neo-radicalistic anarcho-syndicalism.'
- A short song for BBC Radio 6 Music by Jake Yapp featured "Elmo the anarcho-syndicalist." The short lampooned the book Primetime Propaganda's premise that children's programs have "secret left-wing messages."
- Anarcho-syndicalist symbolism
- Council Communism
- General strike
- Kronstadt Rebellion
- Libertarian socialism
- List of federations of trade unions
- Mondragon Corporation
- Participatory Economics
- Trade unions in South Africa
- Wildcat strike action
- Workers' self-management
- Revolutionary syndicalism, Encyclopedia Britannica
- Jeremy Jennings, Syndicalism in France (St Martin's Press, 1990) ISBN 031204027X
- Qtd. by Robert Yates in "Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787" <http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/yates.asp>
- "1c. Why do anarcho-syndicalists oppose participation in statist politics?". Anarcho-Syndicalism 101. Class Struggle Online. April 2002. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
- Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice (AK Press, 2004), p. 73, ISBN 1-902593-92-8
- Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice (AK Press, 2004), p. 62-63, ISBN 1-902593-92-8
- Jameson, J. F., The American Historical Review (American Historical Association, 1895), p. 731.
- Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World (State University of New York Press, 1989), pp. 69-90, ISBN 0-7914-0089-1
- David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917-1945, (Greenwood, 2002), p. 134. ISBN 0-313-32026-8
- "Principles of Revolutionary Syndicalism", Anarcho-Syndicalist Review
- "The Statutes of Revolutionary Unionism (IWA)", The International Workers Association (IWA)
- Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory & Practice: An Introduction to a Subject which the Spanish War has Brought into Prominence, by Rudolf Rocker, Modern Publishers, 1947, pg 130
- Lipset, Seymour Martin and Marks, Gary, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001). ISBN 0-393-32254-8
- The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature, The New Press, 2006, p.38-9
- Heider, Ulrike and Bode, Ulrike, Anarchism: Left, Right and Green (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1994), p. 4. ISBN 0-87286-289-5
- Murray Bookchin, The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism, online at Anarchy Archives. Retrieved 27 January 2009.
- Romero Maura, "The Spanish Case", contained in Anarchism Today, D. Apter and J. Joll (eds.), p. 75
- Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, op. cit., p. 53
- Emile Pouget in No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism, edited by Daniel Guerin (AK Press, 2005), p. 71. ISBN 1-904859-25-9
- Bookchin, M 1998, The Spanish Anarchists, AK Press, California. p 121
- "Elmo the anarcho-syndicalist," New Left Project.
- Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter-Power vol 1) by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt AK Press. (April 1, 2009). ISBN 978-1-904859-16-1
- Chomsky, Noam (ed. Barry Pateman), Chomsky on Anarchism AK Press, 2005 ISBN 1-904859-20-8
- Flank, Lenny (ed), IWW: A Documentary History, Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9791813-5-1
- Rocker, Rudolf, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism
- Rocker, Rudolf (1938), Anarcho-Syndicalism (book), Online here: 
- Living Utopia, ("Vivir la utopía", Documentary-film from 1997 about Anarcho-syndicalism and Anarchism in Spain)
- Noam Chomsky: The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism (interviewed by Peter Jay, 1976) (video and text)
- Ursula K. Le Guin's 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed, subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia", concerns a functioning anarcho-syndicalist society.
- A comprehensive list of Anarcho-syndicalist organizations
- What is revolutionary syndicalism? An on-going historical series on anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism from a communist perspective
- Anarcho-Syndicalism 101
- Anarcho-Syndicalist Review
- Syndicalism: Myth and Reality
- Revolutionary Unionism: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow by Dan Jakopovich
- Anarcho-Syndicalism texts from the Kate Sharpley Library