Friday, January 29, 2010

Syndicalism and the General Strike

Part 1

Just as a seed contains the varied hues in a flower, so capitalism at its birth contained all that has flowered into various expressions of revolt. The misery it brought has fostered ideas of short cuts to salvation that continually reappear with different signposts.

Thus, the main arguments of Syndicalism were repeated by the Bolsheviks and their servile followers in Britain in the 'twenties and 'thirties. The claims that Syndicalism was based on the principles of Marx; that the mass of workers were ignorant and inert, and required leading (and forcing) into the promised land; that the days of theory had passed and the days of action come - these and a host of other ideas demonstrated not only a similarity in outlook between Syndicalism and Bolshevism, but the common source of both movements.

The backbone of Syndicalism was the General Strike. As a proposed means to achieve the workers' emancipation it has an old history, and received considerable support before the capture of power by parliamentary action had come within the workers' reach. Like Anarchism, it attracted artists and professional people by its insistence upon leadership, its violent attacks on established institutions, its spurning of theoretical knowledge, and its promise of rapid victory.

After they were expelled from the International the anarchist movement fell to pieces, unable to make progress because of their own opposition to all organization; and the acts of violence to which groups of anarchists resorted led to vigorous police action against them. In their extremity they sought a new lease of life by infiltrating the developing trade union movement. The propaganda of the General Strike fitted in with their anti-State and general-destruction policies, as well as the idea of the capture of power by a militant minority. Sorel describes the position as follows:

"Many anarchists, tired at last of continually reading the same grandiloquent maledictions hurled at the capitalist system, set themselves to find a way which would lead them to acts which were really revolutionary. They became members of syndicates which, thanks to violent strikes, realised to a certain extent, the social war they had often heard spoken of. Historians will one day see in this entry of the anarchists into the syndicates one of the greatest events that has been produced in our times, and then the name of my poor friend Fernand Pelloutier will be as well known as it deserves to be."(Reflections on Violence)

In England and America the influence was brief (though for a short time it captured the imaginations of some who should have known better). The main support was in countries where small industries flourished as France, Italy, Spain and Russia.

It was in France that the General Strike was first exhaustively discussed and propagated. The growth of the trade-union movement led to a struggle between its advocates and those of political action At the Trade Union Congress in 1879 the Guesdist movement, which stood for the conquest of political power. scored a temporary victory, but political action subsequently lost its hold. To the impatient, industrial action appeared as a royal and easy road without having to wait. In 1888 the Congress of the French National Federation of Trade Unions voted in favour of the General Strike and the idea then spread rapidly, even receiving some support from political parties. Among its champions was Aristide Briand who, later as a capitalist cabinet minister, was its vigorous opponent and oppressor.

The arguments for the General Strike at that time may be summed up as follows. To strike was legal, so no matter how widespread it might be the government was unable to prosecute the strikers. A general stoppage of work would reduce the ruling class to famine; it would need to be operated only a short time to compel the government to capitulate and bring the workers into control of power. Its spontaneity meant that it could begin at any time and, hastened by propaganda and organization, bring about the revolution rapidly. The workers must have an organization to take over production afterwards, and the trade unions were admirably suited for this purpose.

Although a minority in the trade-union movement, the anarchists soon occupied key positions and by the middle of the 'nineties’ were the dominating section. Apart from their fanatical activity, they were assisted by the method of selecting delegates by group and not by number. Being divided in many small groups while their opponents were in fewer larger ones, the anarchists were able to capture the controlling influence; the few highly industrialized parts of France were not able to send as many dele-gates to conferences as the scattered backward parts where the anarchists predominated. Consequently each congress was "packed" by anarchists - a form of "tactics" with which we are still familiar.

Under their influence, General Strike propaganda went beyond just sitting down and folding arms. Sabotage was adopted, involving the destruction of means of production and the forcing of the support of the unwilling. The practical policy that grew out of the French Revolution and was adopted by Blanque, Bakounin, De Leon and Lenin was based on the idea that an active minority can carry with it an inert and ignorant mass. It is a policy that depends upon leadership and always places power in the hands of one or two outstanding persons, finally degenerating into personal quarrels between these leaders. Behind it, though rarely recognized, is the conflict between idealism and materialism: the power of the idea alone against the power of material circumstances, which include ideas.

In 1895 a new federation of workers was formed, the General Confederation of Labour (known as the CGT - Confederation General de Travail). It included the General Strike as part of its programme. A conglomeration of unions and federations, it comprised all political shades but was ruled by the anarchist minority until 1909, when the crushing of a large-scale postal strike made clear the weakness of industrial action against the power of the state. The opposition to the General Strike policy, particularly by the Guesdists, also showed its failings. For example, the syndicalists were compelled to include anti-militarist propaganda, as an admission that governmental power would not collapse in a general cessation of work.

Probably the most complete expression of the syndicalist outlook is contained in Arnold Roller's The Social General Strike (published by the Debating Club No. I, Chicago, 1905). Sliding over difficulties and inconsistencies, the writer distinguishes between strikes for higher wages or political privileges and the strike. According to him the General Strike begins in a small way, spreads in sympathetic strikes, and develops into the overthrowing of the system; it is the culmination of hundreds of earlier strikes in which the workers have gained experience and an ever-stronger sense of solidarity.

Following that argument, one would imagine that the majority of workers had gradually acquired sufficient class-consciousness to understand their social position and desire a change in the basis of society. But this is not the syndicalist view. According to them, the mass of workers are backward and inert until the General Strike commences. Then, in the course of the movement, they become more active and enthusiastic until they convert the strike from the attainment of some minor object into the social revolution. And this change is supposed to occur in a few days or weeks, as production and distribution are brought to a standstill: knowledge grows like a mushroom out of the quagmires of disaster!

Roller is not disturbed by the fact that all workers will not come out on strike. He says: "This ideal of propaganda will, however, in spite of its beauty always be a dream." He claims that it is only necessary to interrupt production in the whole country for long enough to totally disorganize capitalist society; this, he claims, can be done by sabotage in the principal industries. (But at another time he insists that a great advantage of the General Strike, that will gain for it many adherents who lack courage, is that it will be perfectly legal.) He makes the
following very significant statement:

"Modern industry, with its extremely specialised labour division and complications, is but poorly adapted to oppose a general strike caused by a minority, for the strike will completely wreck the whole system necessary for the management of production, and vital the life of modern society."

The sabotage to assist in this wrecking was include cutting telephone and telegraph wires; tea ing up railway lines; causing accidents; loosening screws in machinery; destroying supports and applying fire and dynamite in mines; sinking ships; and many other methods of destruction - a choice assortment is also described by Pataud and Pouget in the phantasy Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth, 1913. Thus, as in the policy of Bakouni society is to be completely wrecked.

In such circumstances, what would be the position of the workers? The inert mass that has sudden developed "revolutionary fervour" is supposed to trust local leaders, who will pacify them by reporting the progress of the revolution (how, with the means communication smashed, is not explained). The feeding of the population in the midst of this wreckage is also glossed over with childlike simplicity, with the answer that hungry people will attack stores of food. Leaving out of consideration the action the government. what citv has stores of food to support its inhabitants for any length of time? And what about water and sanitation? It does not require a great deal of imagination to foresee disease at devastation sweeping through cities like London Paris, Berlin and New York. If the syndicalists we as successful as they hoped, it would not be a question of bringing the ruling class to their knees but of submerging everyone in a common holocaust disaster.

But before matters had reached such a pitch the government would have stepped in with the forces at its disposal. Roller has an inkling of this. claims first that the destruction would be so wide spread that there would be insufficient military for to cope with it, and then that it is essential to get the military on the side of the workers: "For revolutionising of the present order of society, anti- militarism and its propaganda is an absolute necessary supplement to the General Strike."

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 subjection. The condition the syndicalists takes for granted, lack of knowledge on the part of majority, is a condition that is bound to defeat it by playing into the government's hands. The experience of large strikes has been the very opposite of that anticipated by the syndicalists. The government smashed the French postal workers in 1909 by simply calling the postal workers to the colours and then sending them back to their old jobs as soldiers. Soldiers are average members of the working made more amenable by the discipline to which they are subjected and , like the mass of workers up to the present, accept the suppression of "disorder" as a proper course of action

Part 2

In order to illustarte 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; emphasis 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 has 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 AFL's policy of collective bargaining and separate contracts led to one union scabbing on another; the leaders of the AFL 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 AFL 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 Labour 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 far 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 abject 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.

Socialist Standard February 1975

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