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A history of Anarcho-syndicalism

SelfEd Collective, 24 unit correspondence course, 2001

Block 1

Unit 1: Introduction - The origins of Capitalism (go to Unit 1, get PDF)
Unit 2: Britain - The radical period 1750s-1840s (go to Unit 2)
Unit 3: The First International(go to Unit 3)
Unit 4: France 1870-1918 - Early revolutionary Unions (go to Unit 4)
Unit 5: Revolutionary syndicalism in Britain, 1870-1910 (go to Unit 5)
Unit 6: Revolutionary syndicalism in Britain and Ireland, 1910-1917 (go to Unit 6)

Block 2

Unit 7: Mexico 1870-1920 - Colonialism and revolution (go to Unit 7)
Unit 8: USA 1886-1930 - The Wobblies (go to Unit 8)
Unit 9: Anarcho-syndicalism in Argentina 1870-1939 (go to Unit 9)
Unit 10: Sweden - 1889-1939 (go to Unit 10)
Unit 11: Russia I - 1850-1917 (go to Unit 11)
Unit 12: Russia II - 1917-1930 (go to Unit 12)

Block 3

Unit 13: Going Global - International Organisation, 1872-1922 (go to Unit 13)
Unit 14: Anarcho-syndicalism in Britain, 1914-30 (go to Unit 14)
Unit 15: Spain, 1868-1936 - Build-up to revolution (go to Unit 15)
Unit 16: Spain - Culture, education, women and sexuality (go to Unit 16)
Unit 17: Spain 1936-39 - Revolution and civil war (go to Unit 17)
Unit 18: Spain - The Collectives (go to Unit 18)

Block 4

Unit 19: Britain, 1930-1950 - The era of reformism (go to Unit 19)
Unit 20: Britain, 1950-1990 - Decline of social democracy (go to Unit 20)
Unit 21: Global anarcho-syndicalism 1939-99 (go to Unit 21)
Unit 22: Roots of modern anarcho-syndicalism - freedom, oppression, rebellion (go to Unit 22)
Unit 23: Roots of modern anarcho-syndicalism - morality, culture, tactics (go to Unit 23)
Unit 24: The spirit of anarcho-syndicalism (go to Unit 24)

Block 1

Unit 1: Introduction - The origins of Capitalism

This introductory unit provides a background for the course. It examines the emergence of capitalism through the agrarian and industrial revolutions in Britain. Although this period pre-dates the emergence of anarcho-syndicalist ideas, it provides important context to the course.

Anarcho-syndicalism originated as a response to capitalism, and seeks to replace capitalism. This Unit therefore gives us an insight into how capitalism came about, and an indication of how it works. It also serves as an example of how historical change comes about.

Major historical change is neither mere accident, nor a result of the actions of prominent historical figures. Rather, the course of history is determined by the interaction of economic development and social movements. Thus, capitalism did not arise from the efforts of a few inventors causing an industrial revolution, nor because British capitalists had some special "enterprising spirit". It arose from the systematic breakdown of feudalism as a social and economic system and the imposition of a wage labour system in its place.

Go to Unit 1

Unit 2: Britain - The radical period 1750s-1840s

The period 1750-1830 saw the rapid rise of the market economy in Britain, so that by the early 1830s ‘full-blown' capitalism had become firmly established. During this same period, as capitalism tightened its grip on the emerging working class, so the first signs of real resistance against this new form of economic oppression began to be developed. Particularly during the early part of the 19th Century, there was a radical period in Britain, and the working class started organising themselves and trying out methods of resistance. Of these, one of the most significant was the idea of the Grand National Holiday - the forerunner of the General Strike. Although a coherent set of ideas and tactics was not yet developed, some important lessons were already being learned which would later contribute to the advent of early anarcho-syndicalism.

Go to Unit 2

Unit 3: The First International

Unit 2 highlighted some of the tactics developed by the working class in 18th Century Britain that would later contribute to anarcho-syndicalism. However, during this time, the idea still dominated that political change would only come about through reform, in the guise of more representative government. Hence, the Chartists' main aim was greater political equality, through the extension of the vote. Many workers still mistakenly saw corrupt, unrepresentative government, rather than the inequalities of the economic system, as the main source of oppression.

However, as capitalist exploitation grew in the 19th Century, the focus shifted towards economic inequality. A growing number of workers realised that political reform was not enough, and that working class emancipation could only come about with the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by an economic system based on collective ownership. Increasingly, the labour movement of the mid-late 19th Century was characterised by growing polarisation of two approaches; (1) political reform leading to economic change towards collective ownership, and; (2) the replacement of parliament altogether with a collective system based on direct control by the working class.

Go to Unit 3

Unit 4: France 1870-1918 - Early Revolutionary Unions

In Unit 3 we examined how the conflicts within the First International contributed to the development of anarchism. Now we turn our attention to the years after the demise of the First International. This was a period of rapid growth of a new revolutionary movement, as the anarchists put their methods and ideas into practice. Although it would spread across the world, it was in France that this emerging workers movement first took off.

This Unit charts the efforts of the French working class who, during this period, were to take anarchism and fuse its methods and ideas with trade unionism to create revolutionary unionism - a forerunner of anarcho-syndicalism.

Go to Unit 4

Unit 5: Revolutionary Syndicalism in Britain, 1870-1910

Unit 4 is concerned with how anarchism developed within the French workers' movement to form the basis of anarcho-syndicalism. Units 5 and 6 chart the effect of these events in France as they spread to Britain, where similar ideas were put into practice, especially in the first years of the Twentieth Century. However, these events indicate that the development of anarcho-syndicalism during this period varied from country to country. Indeed, while anarchism emerged as a number of fundamental ideas, the actions that this body of ideas led to were adapted and developed in practical reality.

Thus, anarcho-syndicalism did not emerge as a rigid theory with a single blueprint for change to be applied regardless of current economic conditions. On the contrary, it emerged as numerous ever-changing tactics based on a set of basic principles. Hence, it is the application of these principles which has led to the use of a range of tactics to meet the human conditions in different places at different times.

Go to Unit 5

Unit 6: Revolutionary Syndicalism in Britain and Ireland, 1910-1917

The year 1910 proved to be a turning point in the development of revolutionary syndicalism in Britain, and the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War were a time of major development. During a few short years, a recognisable and co-ordinated movement for revolutionary change emerged and grew rapidly.

This Unit follows on from Unit 5, which described the development of the revolutionary tendencies within the British labour movement over the forty-year period 1870-1910. The conditions that proved to be appropriate for a major burst of revolutionary working class activity around 1910 are also discussed in Unit 5. Here, a more detailed account is presented of the critical 4-year period that followed.

Go to Unit 6

Block 2

Unit 7: Mexico 1870-1920 - Colonialism and Revolution

Units 1-6 chart some of the important beginnings of anarcho-syndicalism in Britain and Europe. In Block 2 (Units 7-12), we turn our attention to case studies from around the world.

Unit 7 concentrates on Mexico, in particular, the Mexican revolution of 1910. In this brief overview of a critical period in Mexico's history, it becomes apparent that, like all revolutions, this was a time of great difficulty and complexity. To attempt to view this period in doctrinaire or simplistic terms would be wrong. Revolutions, far from being simplistic, are made by human beings, not by political theory. As such, they are complex social events that never conform to any master plan.

Go to Unit 7

Unit 8: USA 1886-1930 - The Wobblies

The development of anarcho-syndicalism in North America around the turn of the last century was dominated by the fortunes of the revolutionary union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). While the IWW never became explicitly anarcho-syndicalist as an organisation, the influence on its development was considerable, and many anarcho-syndicalists were involved in the IWW (a situation that still exists today). An overview and some analysis of these influences and other tendencies within the IWW is the central purpose of this Unit. In particular, we shall examine the conflicts that arose within the IWW over internal democracy and look briefly at the success of the IWW in creating a distinct ‘working class revolution' culture. It was this cultural aspect which reflected and developed further the important anarcho-syndicalist concept of ‘building the new society within the shell of the old'.

Go to Unit 8

Unit 9: Anarcho-syndicalism in Argentina 1870-1939

This Unit sees the attention on world anarcho-syndicalism shift to South America - and the specific case study of Argentina. Virtually every South American country has had an active anarcho-syndicalist movement at some point, and space within this course simply does not allow the rich history of each to be uncovered in turn. So, a single case study it has to be. Why Argentina? Mainly because the Argentinean movement developed directly out of the existing anarchist movement. As such, it was more politically driven by anarchist ideas than the more economically-dominated syndicalism of some of the other movements in neighbouring countries. Thus, the development of Argentinean anarcho-syndicalism marks a critical stage in the development of anarcho-syndicalist ideas and tactics. It takes us closer to the emergence of modern anarcho-syndicalism - a working class movement which integrates economic and political struggle, within both workplace and the wider community.

Go to Unit 9

Unit 10: Sweden - 1889-1939

In this Unit, we trace the development of anarcho-syndicalism back to Europe. As with Argentina in Unit 9, Sweden is chosen here as a case study, to give an example of anarcho-syndicalism in Europe up to the Second World War. As in South America, virtually every European Country had an anarcho-syndicalist movement. We have dealt with France and the early period in Britain, and we shall be dealing with Russia, Spain and Britain again.

It is worth noting here that the character and size of the anarcho-syndicalist movements in Europe varied widely. Examples of other European countries where large, prolonged periods of such organisation existed include Italy, Germany, Poland and Norway (see summary chronology in Unit 13, forthcoming).

Go to Unit 10


Unit 11: Russia I - 1850-1917

The momentous events in Russia in the early 20th century had a unique and profound effect on the development of anarcho-syndicalism.

Hence, both this and the following Unit are dedicated to Russia. Roughly speaking, this unit (Part 1) deals with events up to the 1917 revolution; Unit 12 (Part 11) with events following it.

Although undoubtedly there were thriving anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements in Russia, they remained small throughout the period. These are not the main focus for study here, instead, we will concentrate on the tactics and actions of the victorious; much of our attention is on the role of the Bolsheviks and in particular, Lenin. The events in Russia cast a long shadow, as we have seen in earlier Units, and they directly and massively affected anarcho-syndicalism world-wide.

In concentrating on Bolshevism, we shall expose the true nature of Marxist-Leninism, and demonstrate clearly how a genuine uprising of the people of Russia was transformed by the Bolsheviks into the authoritarian nightmare that became the Soviet Union.

Go to Unit 11


Unit 12: Russia II - 1917-1930

Unit 11 traced the development of the soviet system and in particular the role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in this process. This unit continues with the story in Russia, concentrating particularly on the establishment of the Bolshevik regime under Lenin in the years following the 1917 events (see Unit 11).

The soviet system prior to 1917 was based on workers' democracy. However, Lenin transformed this beyond recognition, into a mechanism he could use to exercise centralised control and brutal single party dictatorship over working people across the Soviet Union.

Through sharp critique of the events in 1917 and after, this unit aims to uncover the twisted logic and suspect motives of the Bolsheviks. Their subsequent 70-year reign of oppression over the Russian workers remains a permanent warning to working class people and revolutionary movements everywhere. Hopefully, knowledge of Bolshevik tactics, as outlined here, will help prevent such opportunist state capitalists from destroying genuine attempts to build direct democracy in the future.

Go to Unit 12


Block 3

Unit 13: Going Global - International Organisation, 1872-1922

This Unit is about the attempts to organise a revolutionary international in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. From the fall of the First International in the early 1870s (see Unit 3), the desire for a truly revolutionary international organisation gathered strength. Even at this early stage, labour activists were aware that capitalism was an international system that could not be fought within national boundaries alone. As revolutionary syndicalism exploded onto the international labour scene from the early 1900's onwards, the desire increasingly became an imperative. Only an international organisation could organise effective global solidarity, co-ordinate the offensive against capitalism, and develop the tactics of anarcho-syndicalism by sharing experiences between local organisations. The need for such a body became increasingly urgent as reformist international organisations began to emerge, which the syndicalists perceived as diverting workers from the real struggle against capitalism.

Go to Unit 13


Unit 14: Anarcho-syndicalism in Britain, 1914-30

In this Unit, we return to Britain, picking up the development of syndicalism from where we left off in Unit 6 - the First World War. The outbreak of war had a profound effect on the revolutionary syndicalist movement, and on the workers' movement in Britain as a whole. By 1914, the huge membership of militant, active workers' organisations had become a major threat to the privileges of the ruling class.

Rather than attempt to document the entire movement, in this unit we attempt to provide an in-depth case study mainly of one industrial sector - that of engineering. This sector is chosen because, after an initial decline, syndicalism re-emerged within engineering in the form of the Shop Stewards and Works Committee Movement. In this Unit, we trace the rise of this movement and the part syndicalism played within it.

Go to Unit 14)


Unit 15: Spain, 1868-1936 - Build-up to revolution

It was in Spain that anarcho-syndicalist ideas came to fruition. In particular, the period of revolution and civil war in 1936-9 constitutes, in many ways, the birthplace of modern anarcho-syndicalism (see Units 16-18). Here, we examine the build up and background to this period.

In an attempt to assess the nature, growth and success - as well as the failures - of the CNT, we look back at the political and social atmosphere of late 19th Century Spain, starting with the arrival of anarchist ideas in 1868. We then look at the changing fortunes of libertarian organisations up to the establishment of the CNT, and the crucial period of the late 1920s and 1930s.

Go to Unit 15


Unit 16: Spain - Culture, education, women and sexuality

As introduced in Unit 15, social and cultural issues were at the core of the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain, right from the start of the first anarchist unions in the early 1870s. The level of discussion - and disagreement - on topics such as education and sexuality was high around the turn of the Century, as Spain took the first faltering steps towards ‘modernisation'. Anarcho-syndicalists were outspoken in their opposition to both the intransigent traditionalist right, often backed by the Catholic Church, and the liberal bourgeois lobby, which held education as the basis for modernising the country.

By the 1930s, the CNT had developed an integrated and sophisticated revolutionary culture of free expression, along with an impressive number of local social and educational facilities. In this Unit, we examine culture, sexuality and education, in an attempt to highlight the character and importance of the social dimension to the revolutionary struggle in Spain.

Go to Unit 16



Unit 17: Spain 1936-39 - Revolution and civil war

This Unit is a short introduction to the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of 1936-39. Ideally, it should be read in conjunction with Units 15, 16 and 18, which deal with the events leading up to 1936, the cultural and social programme of the anarcho-syndicalists, and the collectives respectively. Following on from Unit 15 and intertwined with Units 16 and 18, this Unit provides a chronology and commentary, particularly on the political and military events of 1936-39.

Although many books and articles have been written on the Spanish Revolution, few attempt to draw practical lessons from it that we can apply to the modern world. This is one of the intentions of these four Units. This one is particularly concerned with how the state and forces of capitalism went about attacking the revolution and protecting their wealth and privilege, and how the revolutionary working class acted in trying to achieve the best outcome possible, given the prevailing situation.

Go to Unit 17


Unit 18: Spain - The Collectives

Some of the many social and cultural aspects of the run up to the Spanish Revolution are described in Unit 16, and the main events of the period are presented in Unit 17. Here, we turn our attention to the collectives, which lay at the heart of the socio-economic system established wherever anarcho-syndicalism was put into practice.

The collectives built by the CNT and the Spanish people remain, to this day, a most striking example of the possibilities of collective organisation and economy. Both the scale and pace of collective development (despite the rigours of fascist attack) and the confidence and zeal with which it was embraced are remarkable. While the achievements of this period were short-lived, one purpose of this Unit is to indicate how lessons learned from the Spanish collectives are still relevant today. Indeed, over 60 years on, collective organisation based on workers self-management of society on the Spanish model still offers a modern and real alternative to both capitalism and the Marxist state run economy.

go to Unit 18


Block 4

Unit 19: Britain, 1930-1950 - The era of reformism

This Unit and the following one cover a time during which anarcho-syndicalist ideas were at a low ebb in Britain – the 1930s to the 1970s. Instead of examining the small (though active) anarcho-syndicalist groups that existed, the main focus is on the wider political scene. In particular, this Unit concentrates on examining the reforms and state interventionist policies which came to dominate most of the advanced capitalist world.

While anarcho-syndicalism had little influence during the period, such wider events, and the lessons learned from them, were important in the development of modern anarcho-syndicalism. Thus, the period under examination can be seen as a backdrop to the re-emergence of the anarcho-syndicalist movement onto the world stage since the 1970s.

Go to Unit 19


Unit 20: Britain, 1950-1990 - Decline of social democracy

Unit 19 charted the inter-war years and Britain's short flirtation with state economic planning during and after World War II. During the 1950s and 1960s, this was replaced with Keynesian demand management, in an attempt to halt Britain's long term decline. In this Unit, we will investigate why this strategy failed. We shall also examine the post-war shop stewards' movement, which had its roots in the earlier syndicalist movement, and demonstrate how it was seriously weakened by having ditched critical syndicalist principles. Hence, the shop stewards' movement was unprepared for and dismally failed to resist the Thatcher onslaught from 1979 on.

Go to Unit 20


Unit 21: Global anarcho-syndicalism 1939-99

In Unit 13, we traced the history of international anarcho-syndicalist organisation, with the founding of the International Workers' Association (IWA) in Berlin in December 1922. The postscript to Unit 13 points out that, by the end of the Second World War, repression had wiped out much of the pre-war anarcho-syndicalist movement, leaving only a handful of much smaller organisations.

This Unit traces the more recent development of the IWA in the post-war era. In particular, we concentrate on the post-war CNT, and on the period since 1975, when new growth in the world anarcho-syndicalist movement has begun to occur again.

Go to Unit 21


Unit 22: Roots of modern anarcho-syndicalism - freedom, oppression, rebellion

There remains much to discover of the misreported and underemphasised history of anarchism, libertarian socialism, and anarcho-syndicalism. Totalitarianism and oppression, the dominance of Marxism, and the prejudice of western academia towards a movement which has remained outside the control of the media leadership and experts, have ensured that this is the case. Now that anarcho-syndicalism is emerging as a force for change across the world, we are confident that a fuller history of anarcho-syndicalism will unfold, as more activists begin to trace the roots of the movement.

The first 21 Units of this 24 Unit course have investigated various major historical events in anarcho-syndicalist history. The aim of this and the following Unit is to summarise the main origins and motivations in the development of modern anarcho-syndicalism. In this exercise, we attempt to emphasise two things; firstly, the sheer extent of anarchist influence on revolutionary movements, and secondly, the lessons from these experiences which are still relevant for us to apply today and in the future. In so-doing, we will inevitably recap on some of the achievements that have been so deliberately brushed under the carpet of capitalist history.

Go to Unit 22


Unit 23: Roots of modern anarcho-syndicalism - morality, culture, tactics

Anarcho-syndicalism has a rich history, and one which has been repeatedly misreported and underemphasised by the academics and media of the establishment. As a counter attack, this Unit continues the process of uncovering the real story. It follows on from Unit 22, tracing the origins, motivations and ideas of anarcho-syndicalism.

While much of the historical context of this Unit is drawn from earlier ones, the intention here is to summarise the roots of anarcho-syndicalism. It aims to illustrate when and how anarcho- syndicalism developed and incorporated cohesive ideas, principles and tactics, many of which still remain as relevant today as when they were first mooted. The result is a concise rundown of key elements, the idea being to form a historical backdrop to the next and final Unit in the course, which will outline the main ideas that constitute anarcho-syndicalism in Britain today.

Go to Unit 23


Unit 24: The spirit of anarcho-syndicalism

This Unit is slightly different from the previous 23 in that it attempts to take anarcho-syndicalist history and project it forward into the first years of the 21st Century. In so doing, it builds directly upon Units 22 and 23, which trace the origins, motivations, ideas, aims and principles of anarcho-syndicalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries respectively.

This is not a ‘definition' of anarcho-syndicalism in any sense. In fact, to attempt something like a ‘manifesto' would be both futile and contrary to the spirit of anarcho-syndicalism, which is characterised by independence of action around a basic set of core principles; centred on freedom and solidarity. Anarcho-syndicalism has grown and developed through people taking action, having experiences, and learning from them. To try to produce an all-encompassing theory to live or organise by would therefore be alien to anarcho-syndicalists. Instead, this Unit is a small group of people's feelings of what is the spirit of anarcho-syndicalism at the beginning of the 21st Century.

It is structured in three sections; a short introduction to the choices on offer to us in changing society; a discussion of some of the ideas at the core of anarcho-syndicalism today, and; some notes and comments on 3 examples of types of struggles taking place today. As ever, the idea is to contribute to new and more effective action, from which we can collectively bring about a better society more quickly. That is the spirit of anarcho-syndicalism, and also the spirit of this Unit.

Go to Unit 24)