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Fighting for ourselves - anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle

Anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th century


In this chapter we will introduce anarcho-syndicalism as a synthesis of the anarchist politics and syndicalist methods we encountered in the previous chapter. This will be explored through the theory of Émile Pouget, the Argentine FORA (Argentine Regional  Workers’ Federation), the German FAUD (Free Workers’ Union of Germany) and the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour). While the mainstream workers’ movement is separated into political (party) and economic (trade union) wings, anarcho-syndicalism's revolutionary unions are at the same time political and economic organisations. In countries where reformist trade unionism was not well established (such as Spain) this revolutionary current sometimes became the mainstream. Where trade unions were stronger (such as Germany), anarcho-syndicalism constituted a revolutionary alternative to the mainstream workers’ movement. This chapter will also show how this synthesis of anarchism and syndicalism has taken different forms in response to different conditions, but always rejected the division of the workers’ movement into economic and political wings, and rejected representation in favour of associations for direct action.

The emergence of anarcho-syndicalism

Anarcho-syndicalism, as a coherent idea, emerged from the actual practices of anarchists and syndicalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The ideas of anarcho-syndicalism were first developed within the French CGT. However, as we have seen, the CGT never itself embraced anarcho-syndicalism but maintained an attitude of political neutrality (in principle, if not always in practice, with both parliamentary and anti-parliamentary tendencies). Thus, in tracing the evolution of anarcho-syndicalism, Rudolf Rocker writes that within the CGT, “the revolutionary wing, which had the most energetic and active elements in organised labour on its side and had at its command, moreover, the best intellectual forces in the organisation, gave to the CGT its characteristic stamp, and it was they, exclusively, who determined the development of the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism.”81 Amongst the leading members of this tendency was Émile Pouget, the vice-secretary of the union from 1901 to 1908.

Pouget wrote a number of influential pamphlets including ‘Direct Action’ and ‘Sabotage’, as well as a fictionalised (to avoid the censors) manifesto of revolutionary anarchism entitled ‘How we shall bring about the revolution’ written in 1909 with Émile Pataud. Pouget never saw his ideas realised fully within the CGT and left the union movement after it was captured by reformists. But they were taken up enthusiastically by others elsewhere. For that reason, they are worth exploring further. In the opening passage of the pamphlet ‘Direct Action’, Pouget sets out the definition which all anarcho-syndicalism goes by:

“Direct action is the symbol of revolutionary unionism in action. This formula is representative of the twofold battle against exploitation and oppression. It proclaims, with inherent clarity, the direction and orientation of the working class's endeavours in its relentless attack upon capitalism. Direct action is a notion of such clarity, of such self-evident transparency, that merely to speak the words defines and explains them. It means that the working class, in constant rebellion against the existing state of affairs, expects nothing from outside people, powers or forces, but rather creates its own conditions of struggle and looks to itself for its means of action. It means that, against the existing society which recognises only the citizen, rises the producer. And that that producer, having grasped that any social grouping models itself upon its system of production, intends to attack directly the capitalist mode of production in order to transform it, by eliminating the employer and thereby achieving sovereignty in the workshop – the essential condition for the enjoyment of real freedom.”82

Considering these words were penned over a century ago, we can make only minor criticisms. The emphasis on producers rather than the working class in a more general sense could be seen to treat work as the exclusive site of struggle and thus exclude the unemployed, housewives and others (although as we will see, the subsequent anarcho-syndicalist movement did make attempts, with varying success, to organise these groups too). The rise of mass media and subsequently of publicity stunts by various campaigners and activists has mystified the once self-evident clarity of direct action with images of men dressed as superheroes and imaginative lobbies of parliament. Pouget would have had no time for such nonsense, insisting that “direct action thus implies that the working class subscribes to notions of freedom and autonomy instead of genuflecting before the principle of authority.”83 For Pouget parliament and democracy were just the latest form of this principle of authority which must be overthrown, not petitioned or participated in. In ‘Sabotage’, he sets out a communist analysis of wage labour which could have been lifted from Marx (distinguishing between labour and labour power, for instance84), but couples this analysis of exploitation with that of oppression, insisting on the inseparability of such economic and political struggles and their unity through working class direct action. Pouget also deals with the criticism that fighting for concessions under capitalism is either reformist or utopian, by arguing that what is revolutionary about working class direct action is that it links the means and ends of the revolutionary union whilst waging the everyday struggle:

“This task of laying the groundwork for the future is, thanks to direct action, in no way at odds with the day to day struggle. The tactical superiority of direct action rests precisely in its unparalleled plasticity: organisations actively engaged in the practice are not required to confine themselves to beatific waiting for the advent of social changes. They live in the present with all possible combativity, sacrificing neither the present to the future, nor the future to the present. It follows from this, from this capacity for facing up simultaneously to the demands of the moment and those of the future and from this compatibility in the two-pronged task to be carried forward, that the ideal for which they strive, far from being overshadowed or neglected, is thereby clarified, defined and made more discernible.

“Which is why it is both inane and false to describe revolutionaries drawing their inspiration from direct action methods as "advocates of all-or-nothing". True, they are advocates of wresting EVERYTHING from the bourgeoisie! But, until such time as they will have amassed sufficient strength to carry through this task of general expropriation, they do not rest upon their laurels and miss no chance to win partial improvements which, being achieved at some cost to capitalist privileges, represent a sort of partial expropriation and pave the way to more comprehensive demands. From which it is plain that direct action is the plain and simple fleshing-out of the spirit of revolt: it fleshes out the class struggle, shifting it from the realm of theory and abstraction into the realm of practice and accomplishment. As a result, direct action is the class struggle lived on a daily basis, an ongoing attack upon capitalism.”85

For Pouget, this was to culminate in the insurrectionary general strike. He held that the revolution could not be planned, but would develop organically from the overlapping partial struggles of workers. Thus the general strike would come about through a generalisation of these escalating struggles, which the revolutionary union sought to organise:

“The stoppage of work, which on the previous day had been spontaneous, and was due to the accident of personal initiative and impulse, now became regularised and generalised in a methodical way, that showed the influence of the union decisions.”86

But this generalisation of the strike, if successful, would pit the workers’ hunger against the capitalists’ deep pockets. So once the strike was generalised and developed, the revolutionary union would seek to organise expropriations, where workers take over production of goods and services and self-manage them on the basis of needs. So, while up to this point, the revolutionary union had been an organising force made up of “an active minority”, it would now throw its ranks open to all, and use its federal structure as the basis for administering the newly expropriated social production. Thus, while it “had been, in the past, an organisation for fighting (…) [now] it was to be transformed into a social organism”.87 By throwing open its ranks, the revolutionary union would transform itself from a revolutionary minority of class conscious workers fighting against capitalism, into a federal structure for the self-management of the new society. As to the nature of that society, Pataud and Pouget did not see a contradiction between collectivism and communism. Rather, they saw it as inevitable that “pure communism” would only emerge in fits and starts, and since people had to eat in the meantime, something like collectivism could be employed for “luxury items” wherever scarcity meant that free distribution according to needs was not possible.88 But from the start of expropriation, necessary goods and services – food, water and so on – were to be provided free on the production of a union card (with the union now transformed from a fighting organisation to an administrative one open to all workers). Pouget’s brand of anarcho-syndicalism would prove influential on the Spanish CNT. But first, let’s look at the lesser known FORA of Argentina.

The FORA was founded in 1904 out of a merger of existing unions on an explicitly anarcho-communist basis. However, contrary to Pouget’s vision, they saw the revolutionary union as a necessary product of capitalism, and thus did not think it should become the structure of the new society:

"We must not forget that a union is merely an economic by-product of the capitalist system, born from the needs of this epoch. To preserve it after the revolution would imply preserving the capitalist system that gave rise to it. We, as anarchists accept the unions as weapons in the struggle and we try to ensure that they should approximate as closely to our revolutionary ideals. We recommend the widest possible study of the economic philosophical principles of anarchist communism. This education, going on from concentrating on achieving the eight-hour day will emancipate us from mental slavery and consequently lead to the hoped-for social revolution."89

The FORA had its roots in the immigrant community, which contained many European radicals in exile, including veterans of the Paris Commune. Thus, as resident aliens without the right to vote, party politics was not an option for many of its founders, even if they’d been that way inclined. This may help account for the FORA’s overtly anti-state communist ideology, as opposed to the ‘political neutrality’ more common amongst syndicalist unions at the time. In these two aspects, its anarchist communist ideology and its insistence the union should not form the basis of the post-capitalist society, the FORA is often contrasted with the Spanish CNT (who were closer to Pouget’s approach). There are certainly differences between the two, stemming from the differences in context, as well as differing theoretical conceptions of anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary social change. For instance, while the CNT advocated industrial unionism, the “FORA took a stand against industrial (sectoral) forms of organization, considering that they imitated capitalism.”90 In part because the FORA did not aim to form the structure of the new society, it formed a regional federation optimised for its agitational and organisational activities, as opposed to an industrial federation which could form the nucleus of a structure of social administration during the insurrectionary general strike.

FORA’s theoreticians developed a critique of European revolutionary syndicalism which they considered overly Marxist, of European anarcho-syndicalism, which they saw as trying in vain to reconcile revolutionary syndicalism with anarchism, and also of separate anarchist political organisations as proposed by Malatesta and the Platform. The “FORA countered this by advancing a model of an ‘anarchist organization of workers,’ structured like a syndicate but not limiting itself to strictly economic problems but also taking up issues of solidarity, mutual aid, and anarchist communism.”91 Thus, the FORA developed the most overtly ideological brand of anarcho-syndicalism, and it proved highly effective. With a membership of between 40,000 and 100,000 throughout the 1920s, they managed to win six hour work days through a series of local and regional general strikes.

The FORA’s stance, that imitating capitalism’s structure with an industrial union would lead to imitating capitalist relations after the revolution, was related to its conception of libertarian communism. This is worth examining, because it was partly at the root of an important split. Industrialisation was in its relatively early stages in Argentina at the dawn of the 20th century, and people had living memory of their ties to the land. Whilst these had been semi-feudal and hardly desirable conditions, they were still considered favourably by many compared with the horrors of modern industry and its giant sweatshops. The FORA critiqued the Marxist view that capitalist industrialisation was progressive as it developed the capacity for material abundance which made communism possible. They warned that imitating the structures of capitalism, whether its political state or its economic division of labour, would lead to just another version of capitalism, as had happened with the Communist Party in Russia.

Instead, the FORA theoreticians turned to the anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin, for inspiration. They argued history was not driven by inexorable economic laws, but also by ideas and ethical concepts (a critique later taken up by the German anarcho-syndicalist, Rudolf Rocker, in the first chapter of his ‘Nationalism and culture’). Consequently, rejecting the progressive nature of industry, they favoured a more agrarian communism based on the free commune and small scale production. One of their leading theoreticians, Emilio López Arango, wrote that rather than being the inheritor of the earth following on from capitalist industrialisation, the working class was rather:

“[D]estined to become the wall which would stem the tide of industrial imperialism. Only by creating ethical values which would enable the proletariat to understand social problems independently from bourgeois civilization would it be possible to arrive at an indestructible basis for an anti-capitalist and anti-Marxist revolution – a revolution which would do away with the regime of large-scale industry and financial, industrial, and commercial trusts.”92

This anti-industrialism led to a split in 1915. At the 9th Congress of the FORA, its commitment to anarchism was overturned in favour of a ‘neutral’ syndicalist stance. The anarchist unions immediately convened an emergency Congress and reverted to their anarchist communist position. There were now two FORAs. The anarcho-syndicalist one joined the IWA at its founding in 1922, while the more moderate split, known as the ‘FORA IX’ (which wasn’t communist and favoured industrial unionism), merged into the Union Sindicale Argentina in the same year, and then later into the Argentinean CGT. The FORA IX's slide into reformism and class collaboration can be measured by the fact the FORA continued to face harsh repression, whilst its more moderate splits were relatively unimpeded (the CGT ended up as part of the Peronist corporatist settlement in the 1950s, when the Ministry of Labour made it the mandatory union for workers).93

Before we turn to the most famous anarcho-syndicalist organisation, the CNT, we will consider one more of the lesser known anarcho-syndicalist unions of the 20th century, the FAUD of Germany. Germany faced very different conditions to Argentina. There was already an established trade union movement several million strong, and outside of this was only the small Free Association of German Trade Unions (FVdG), a decentralised federation whose membership typically hovered around 6,000 nationally, and had peaked at 18,000 in 1901. The FVdG was originally the economic wing of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), but as this party gained power and revealed its reformist, class collaborationist nature, the FVdG increasingly adopted an anti-parliamentary stance and advocated socialism by means of the general strike rather than parliament led reforms. The years of World War I saw rising discontent amongst German workers at war discipline in production and austerity in living standards. This regime was being managed by the mainstream trade unions (Gewerkschaften), and led to increasing dissent amongst the workers in their ranks. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was taken by many as the signal that international revolution was imminent, and this sparked an upsurge in militancy.

During 1918-19, there was a near revolution in Germany. Workers occupied factories in some regions, forming factory councils to manage them; “the influence of the syndicalists rose quickly after the armed suppression of a general strike in the Ruhr in April 1919.”94 Indeed, “disappointed with the ‘old union’, the workers withheld membership dues, symbolically burned union cards, and urged entry into the FVdG.”95 In December 1919, the FVdG, together with several breakaways from the mainstream unions and some anarchists, formed the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD). The shift from ‘gewerkschaft’ (trade union) to ‘union’ (association of workers) signified the shift to anarcho-syndicalism. In 1920, there were open, civil war type battles in the industrialised Ruhr region. In the ‘Red Army of the Ruhr’, 45% of the soldiers were FAUD members.96 The FAUD, numbering some 112,000, called in vain for a general strike to turn back the tide of counter revolution, which was seeing revolutionaries extrajudicially murdered by the social democratic SPD government in league with the Freikorps, right wing militias of demobilised troops. The counter revolution most famously claimed the lives of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht of the Communist Party.

At the FAUD’s founding congress, the organisation had near unanimously adopted Rudolf Rocker’s ‘declaration of the principles of syndicalism.’97 Rocker was a communist anarchist who put an emphasis on both union action by workers and cultural change. A year later the FAUD appended ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ to their name, confirming this orientation. However, “the ebb of the revolutionary wave and government repressions led to a rapid decrease in the membership of the organization", dwindling from over 100,000 to under 70,000 by 1922.98 As part of its cultural activities, the FAUD also formed women’s leagues in order to discuss the situation of working class women. These peaked at around 1,000 members and declined through the 1920s. The FAUD’s membership as a whole continued to decline through the 1920s as the Weimar Republic established itself. Membership stabilised around 25,000, higher than any of its pre-war, pre-revolution predecessors. The FAUD’s emphasis on political and cultural organising also meant that, despite its decline, “the FAUD remained relatively the strongest element within the anti-authoritarian camp of the Weimar Republic.”99  Summarising the FAUD’s brand of anarcho-syndicalism, Vadim Damier writes that:

“According to the notion of the German anarcho-syndicalists, in the course of a victorious general strike it was appropriate to carry out the expropriation of private property, enterprises, food stores, real estate, etc. The management of enterprises was to be transferred into the hands of Councils of workers and employees [office workers]; the management of dwellings into the hands of Councils of tenants. Delegates from enterprises and districts would constitute a Commune. Money and the system of commodity production (for sale) was slated to be abolished.”100

The possibility of implementing this receded as the revolution was crushed by the combined forces of the Social Democrats and the Freikorps, who handled their dirty work. The Social Democrats legalised the factory councils in 1920, causing the FAUD to boycott them, as they turned from revolutionary organs into organs of class collaboration (similar institutions – works councils – were adopted across Europe after World War II). The fact the working class largely remained behind the Social Democrats in doing both of these things can’t be ignored either, and would seem to reflect the lack of anti-parliamentary agitation and organisation amongst the class prior to the war and revolution. The FAUD’s council model of social revolution meant they often worked alongside the council communist organisations, particularly in several armed uprisings in 1920 and 1921. But they remained critical towards the AAUD’s subjugation to the tutelage of the KAPD. When the AAUD-E rejected political parties, they were invited as observers to FAUD conferences. But despite some overlap of membership, there remained important differences over the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, and the role of revolutionary unions.

The FORA and the FAUD were not of course the only anarcho-syndicalist organisations of the 20th century. But these examples help to show how anarcho-syndicalism has taken different forms in different places in response to different conditions. Having surveyed the FORA and the FAUD, we can now turn to look at their more famous sister section in the International Workers Association, the CNT.

The CNT in the Spanish (counter) revolution

It is ironic that the CNT is the most famous, indeed often taken as the definitive, anarcho-syndicalist organisation. Yet, when compared to the FORA, the FAUD and others, it was perhaps the least successful in synthesising anarchism and syndicalism into a coherent whole. That is not to say it was not anarcho-syndicalist – what else do you call a syndicalist union with an anarchist programme that organises for anarchist revolution? Rather, the two tendencies antagonistically battled it out within the organisation, and the CNT as a whole was thus a contradictory amalgamation of syndicalist union and anarchist organisation. It was simultaneously non-ideological and libertarian communist, revolutionary and reformist, collectivist and communist, with different tendencies winning out at different times under different conditions. Founded in 1910 by a merger of existing unions, roughly on the model of the French CGT, from the start the CNT was under heavy anarchist influence and rejected ‘neutrality’ for a libertarian communist programme. Two decades of agitation culminated in the revolutionary events of 1936.

The libertarian Marxist, Guy Debord, no fan of anarchism, writes that “in 1936, anarchism in fact led a social revolution, the most advanced model of proletarian power in all time” – high praise indeed. However, he continues to summarise the paradox of the Spanish revolution:

“[T]he organized anarchist movement showed itself unable to extend the demi-victories of the revolution, or even to defend them. Its known leaders became ministers and hostages of the bourgeois state which destroyed the revolution only to lose the civil war.”101

Even for disinterested students of history, this would pose a conundrum. For anarcho-syndicalists even more so: is this where our efforts lead, to inevitable counter revolution? Clearly, we don’t think so, but this puzzle cannot go unaddressed. The explanations are often unsatisfactory. On the one hand, sympathisers often dismiss the CNT’s turn to class collaboration as either a product of extraordinary circumstances, or mistakes. But the extraordinary circumstances of social revolution were after all the CNT's declared goal. And the mere concept of an anarchist Minister of Justice, never mind its actual existence, requires a more convincing explanation than the mistakes of individuals.

But on the other hand, critics of anarcho-syndicalism tend to find in the complex events of Spain the confirmation of their own particular ideology. So we are told that this is what happens when you lack a vanguard party, or this is what happens when you make a revolution in the wrong period of history, or that this confirms that any union is by its very nature destined to side with the state against the working class. This last claim is the most common anarchist criticism of anarcho-syndicalism, so it’s worth looking at why it doesn’t hold up. For one thing, we’ve already seen examples of anarcho-syndicalist unions which didn’t do this in the FORA and the FAUD. But also, the claim doesn’t tell us what about the CNT's very nature supposedly doomed it.102 There certainly were tendencies towards class collaboration in the CNT before 1936, but these were not the sole source of the collaboration with the Popular Front government. Additionally, when we look closely, mistakes do appear to play a role, but one which poses as many questions as answers.

None of this is to say that even if everything had gone perfectly, the revolution in Spain could have established durable libertarian communism. Even if Franco’s fascists and the bourgeois republic had been defeated, there would have likely been a foreign intervention by the imperialist powers. By this time, fascism had already crushed the IWA in Italy and Germany, British workers had been pegged back by the manoeuvrings of the TUC and Labour Party in the 1926 General Strike, and the CGT in France was by now thoroughly collaborationist and bureaucratised, and the anarcho-syndicalist movement small. Even if the Spanish proletariat had defeated imperialist intervention, it would have stood alone in a world on the brink of total war.103 It’s impossible to see how ‘libertarian communism in one country’ could have triumphed. However, this recourse to ‘objective conditions’ only explains the failure of the revolution in a general sense. It doesn’t explain why it ultimately failed the way it did, and why the CNT collaborated with the bourgeois state.

On the 17th of July 1936, General Franco staged a military coup. The coup had been long expected, and in fact came largely as a result of the militancy of the working class and peasantry in general, and of the CNT in particular. The CNT had been pursuing a strategy of ‘revolutionary gymnastics’, launching a wave of militant strikes, occupations and insurrections which had rendered the state relatively powerless to enforce the rule of the propertied class. Increasingly, the ruling class turned away from republican democracy towards monarchy, church and military, as sources of authority to discipline the labouring classes, a peculiarly Spanish variant of fascism. So when rumours of the impending coup spread, the CNT was at the forefront of organising resistance, or rather social revolution, as they saw the choice as one between fascism and libertarian communism. On the docks, CNT unions requisitioned arms shipments, and their militants disarmed police of their firearms in the weeks leading up to the coup, stockpiling them for arming the workers. When the coup came, the CNT called a general strike and the fascist forces were met on the streets by armed workers, with CNT militants on the front lines.

Years of direct action, coupled with libertarian communist propaganda, meant when the opportunity arose, workers and peasants didn’t hesitate to take over the factories and fields and start running them on the basis of needs. In much of the countryside and many of the cities, production was restarted under workers’ control along libertarian communist lines, with free access (sometimes on production of a union card along the lines Pouget had advocated). Other factories and firms were run on a collectivist basis, or where money and markets still existed as a sort of “self-management straddling capitalism and socialism, which we maintain would not have occurred had the revolution been able to extend itself fully”, as participant, Gaston Leval, put it.104 Whether this reflected collectivist ideology within the CNT, or the limits of trying to implement 'communism in one region', or whether the former was merely a rationalisation of the latter, are questions to be taken up another time. But that millions of workers and peasants took part in the most sweeping social revolution in history is not in doubt. There is also no doubt that the CNT initially played the revolutionary role ascribed to it by anarcho-syndicalist theory. Indeed, without the CNT, there would have been no revolution.

When the dust settled following the street fighting on the 19th July 1936, Franco’s forces controlled about half the country, whereas the other half was controlled by the insurgent workers and peasants. Indeed:

“[T]he regional government of Catalonia (the Generalitat) headed by Luis Companys controlled only its own building. Local administrations were either removed or neutralized. The army and police were either disbanded or destroyed. Barcelona was controlled by workers’ militias, primarily anarcho-syndicalist in composition.”105

Thus in Barcelona, the CNT’s heartland, events transpired which help us untangle the perplexing series of events which followed. Catalan President Luis Companys recognised his position of weakness, having virtually no forces at his disposal, while workers were in control of the streets and busy expropriating the fields, factories and workplaces across Catalonia and beyond. He invited the CNT to a meeting and told them the following:

“First of all, I must acknowledge that the CNT and FAI [anarchists within the CNT] have never been treated as merited their true importance. You have always been harshly persecuted. Even I, who had been your ally, was forced by political realities to oppose and persecute you, much as it pained me. Today you are masters of the city and Catalonia. You alone defeated the fascists, although I hope you will not take offense if I point out that you received some help from Guards, Mozos [Catalan police] and men loyal to my party. (…) But the truth is that, harshly oppressed until two days ago, you have defeated the fascist soldiers. Knowing what and who you are, I can only employ the most sincere language. You’ve won. Everything is in your power. If you do not want or need me as President of Catalonia, tell me now, so that I can become another soldier in the battle against fascism.”106

The heavily armed CNT-FAI delegation stood before the President of Catalonia and heard him effectively beg their mercy. Companys had one proposal: a collaboration against fascism with the republican political parties, whose leaders he had gathered in an adjoining room.

“The anarcho-syndicalists, who now enjoyed a dominant influence among the workers of Catalonia, were confronted by a decision about what to do with this power: whether to destroy it, take it into their own hands, or hand it over to others.”107

How did the CNT snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? As they saw it, they faced a stark choice: either the CNT took power in an oxymoronic ‘anarchist dictatorship’, or the CNT shared power with the bourgeois political forces via Companys' proposal for an anti-fascist popular front.

“Within the CNT there had long existed a belief that a genuine social revolution would be possible only when the CNT represented an overwhelming majority of the workers in the whole of Spain.”108

Even in its Catalonian heartland, the CNT only accounted for less than half of the working class. Having made access to collectivised services like transport conditional on a union card, they faced an impasse. As they saw it, they could either substitute themselves for the working class as a whole and take power as the CNT, without having gathered all the workers and peasants in their ranks (they rightly saw this 'anarchist dictatorship' as substitutionism, repeating the errors of the Russian Revolution, where the Communist Party did just that). Or they could join Companys' popular front.

While the workers were busy forming neighbourhood and factory committees, often jointly with workers in the socialist UGT, the third option of a council system had already been ruled out in the inter-war years. While the German anarcho-syndicalists, as well as the Russian syndicalist GP Maximov, had both supported the workers’ councils in their respective revolutions, and indeed a “system of free councils” is enshrined in the statutes of the IWA, the CNT had reflected on the failings of the Russian and German revolutions. They concluded that, in part at least, these failings were down to the ability of political parties to infiltrate and manipulate the councils (as the Communist Party did in Russia). Their alternative was the kind of model Émile Pouget had outlined, where the union would throw open its ranks to the class during the revolution, but thereby exclude professional revolutionaries and other non-working class or peasant forces from influencing the course of the revolution. Therefore, having ruled out the option of a council system, and fearful of repeating the path of the Russian Communist Party in taking power on behalf of the working class, by a process of elimination the CNT was left with class collaboration through the popular front.

This was probably the worst option. At least taking power would have meant the possibility of a Pouget type scenario, where any worker or peasant could just join the union and have control of it through the rank and file assemblies, as the CNT was far more member controlled than the centralised, hierarchic Russian Communist Party. No sooner had the CNT-FAI delegation left Companys' office than he set about working towards the popular front. Thus, collaboration fast became a fait accompli, with the CNT’s lay activists outmanoeuvred by experienced politicians as the CNT entered the unfamiliar world of representative politics it had so long opposed. While the CNT unions had the possibility of recalling their delegates and thus stopping the decision to collaborate, those who were so inclined were talked out of it by others in the union.

“The activists of the CNT did not risk taking the path of independent revolutionary action, dreading the prospect of war on three fronts: against the fascists, the government, and possibly foreign interventionists. In other words, the majority of the activists believed it was premature to talk about social revolution on a country-wide scale, while libertarian communism in Catalonia alone was inevitably doomed.”109

This leaves one more dilemma. Fast forward 10 months, and the CNT, as part of the Catalan government, opposed its own armed rank and file in the ‘May days’. How had an anarcho-syndicalist union, where delegates aren't meant to have any power over the members in assembly, ever developed to the point where this was possible? The answer to this lies in the contradictory nature of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism.

“One must also take note of the fact that the CNT had always harboured reformist tendencies which from time to time took control of the organization. Thus, Pestaña and Piero, who headed the CNT at the end of the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1930’s, supported close contacts with republican political organizations, and in 1931-1932 became the leaders of a reformist group, the “Treintistas.” A significant part of this fraction quit the CNT, but returned to it in 1936. However, besides the “Treintistas” there remained a substantial number of “pure” syndicalists in the union federation as well as members who were simply pragmatically inclined. To a certain extent, this was a consequence of the contradictory organizational vision of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, which tried to combine anarchist goals and social ideals with the revolutionary syndicalist principle of trade unions being open “to all workers,” independently of their convictions. The membership of the CNT were far from being made up entirely of conscious anarchists; this was particularly true of those who had joined during the period of the Republic (from 1931 on). These partisans of a pragmatic approach could be relied upon by those activists and members of the executive organs of the CNT who preferred to avoid risky, “extremist” decisions.”110

Thus, the CNT had never really moved away from the French CGT’s model of ‘neutral’ economic unionism, but had nonetheless tried to bolt anarchist politics on the top. To prevent the tendency of neutral syndicalism towards reformism which, in crude terms, derives from lots of reformist members plus internal democracy, the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) had been formed in 1927. The FAI served as a counter weight to the reformist political factions within the CNT such as Angel Pestaña and the other ‘Trientistas’ (‘the Thirty’). But what this meant was recreating the split between the political and the economic. However, here the split was not between a union and a party, rather it was a vertical split between the economically recruited rank and file and the political factions vying for control at the top. The internal split between the economic and the political created a space in which a creeping representative function began to develop, with competing tendencies elected to run the union on the members’ behalf (though there were no paid officials, and they were still subject to mandates and recall).

The reformists had from time to time taken control of the CNT, so can’t simply be dismissed as an insignificant minority. They clearly had a base in the unions which they could rely on for support. The CNT was trying to have its cake and eat it: it wanted a membership recruited on a non-ideological basis, but it didn’t want that to result in the election of reformists to key positions, or to otherwise compromise the CNT’s anarchist ideology.111 The vertical split between the political and the economic, though well intentioned as an attempt to maintain revolutionary anarchist politics with a ‘neutral syndicalist’ organisational model, carried within it the seeds of bureaucratisation. It did so because it created a cleavage between an ideological leadership and the rank and file (of which at least a substantial minority’s, and sometimes a majority's, views were at variance with that leadership). The booming membership growth under the Republic exacerbated this dynamic, though for most of that time the main reformists were outside the CNT. But the problem didn’t go away with the expulsion of ‘the Thirty’ in 1931. On hearing of a secret meeting between reformists in the CNT and the Catalan government in 1934, CNT militant, Buenaventura Durruti, wrote:

“Why did we fight ‘the Thirty’ if we’re also practicing ‘thirty-ism’? Isn’t it a form of ‘thirty-ism’ to complain to Companys about the fact that we’re persecuted? What’s the difference between Companys, Casares Quiroga, and Maura? Aren’t they all bourgeois? They persecute us. Yes, of course they do. We’re a threat to the system they represent. If we don’t want them to harass us, then we should just submit to their laws, integrate ourselves into their system, and bureaucratise ourselves to the marrow. Then we can become perfect traitors to the working class, like the Socialists and everyone else who lives at the workers’ expense. They won’t bother us if we do that. But do we really want to become that?"112

We can therefore conclude the tendency was a structural one rather than being attributable to individual reformist leaders. While the FAI and other revolutionaries succeeded in combating the reformists, the unintended consequence of this was to create a separation between the ideological leadership and the rank and file which, with collaboration with state power, was turned against that rank and file when the leadership failed them and they were making the revolution. And this raises one final point. Ultimately, both the FAI and other political groups, such as the Friends of Durruti, proved impotent, despite their significant efforts, to prevent the CNT’s slide from revolutionary force to a counter revolutionary one. This reflects the fact that the tendency towards bureaucratisation and collaboration was a product of the, albeit modified, neutral syndicalist model the CNT had adopted. The very particular conditions of pre-1936 Spain had prevented this tendency manifesting more strongly earlier, though there had been signs such as 'the Thirty'. For example, it was the state which rebuffed the overtures of the reformists, who subsequently drew Durruti’s above quoted ire.

Yet, neither does this make the case for political organisation to supplement union organisation. On the contrary, the political organisations within the CNT ultimately failed. And indeed, their number included more reformist anarchists such as Juan Peiro113 and, arguably, Diego Abad de Santillián,114 who had supported the industrialists in the FORA,115 advocated collaboration with the popular front from the start,116 and advocated collectivist economics not too dissimilar to self-managed capitalism, with prices, tax reforms and so on.117 So the political organisations charged with ensuring the revolutionary fidelity of the CNT weren’t free of reformists themselves. Indeed, there’s absolutely no reason why ideological anarchists cannot be reformists; revolutionary ideology is often a foil for reformist practice.

But this wasn’t a problem inherent to all anarcho-syndicalism, but one specific to the CNT’s particular contradictory fusion of ‘neutral syndicalist’ structures and revolutionary anarchism, a fusion that was only tentatively possible under particular historical conditions. The problem does not lie simply in the CNT’s openness to 'all workers' resulting in a lack of anarchist ideology (the rank and file, after all, made the revolution), but rather in its contradictory and contested nature. The problem was not that the leadership were anarchist or reformist, but that a leadership layer had emerged at all. After all, there was always a reformist tendency within the CNT leadership, which could draw support from reformist sections of the rank and file. The CNT was both a reformist and a revolutionary union at the same time. These tendencies would not decisively split until after the death of Franco in the 1970s, when the more reformist CGT split from the anarcho-syndicalist CNT over the question of participating in works councils and accepting state funds.

The tragedy lay in the fact that this contradiction was largely masked by circumstances until it mattered most. Precisely as the rank and file overtook their ‘revolutionary leaders’ who had kept the reformists in check, those very same revolutionary leaders were co-opted against the insurgent rank and file. Thus, in a curious way, the failures of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism were twofold. On the one hand a failure to be syndicalist enough, tolerating the separation of a leadership layer from the rank and file to keep the reformists at bay. On the other hand, a failure to be anarchist enough, failing to smash the state (in Catalonia at least) when given the chance and thus allowing it to recompose its forces against the revolution and co-opt the CNT’s leadership to that end. It is easy, of course, to supersede the failings of the revolution in theory. But that means little until they are superseded in practice. We must learn from the failings of the CNT. But that is only half of it. The task is to do better.

Theorising anarcho-syndicalism

The history of the twentieth century makes clear there are two distinct currents within syndicalism. On the one hand, ‘neutral’ or economic syndicalism, which seeks to unite all workers within its ranks on the basis of economic interests.118 Pierre Monatte, in his debate with Malatesta at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress, was one of the clearest exponents of this tendency.119 On the other hand, there is the tendency which seeks to unite syndicalist methods with anarchist philosophy and its goal of social transformation – anarcho-syndicalism. However, history does not follow such neat conceptual distinctions, and these opposing tendencies often found themselves battling it out inside the same organisation. In the French CGT, the anarcho-syndicalists’ influence waned as the union grew. In the Spanish CNT, the price of keeping the reformists at bay was a semi-bureaucratisation which, in the course of the Spanish revolution, proved the CNT’s undoing. In Argentina, these tendencies spun out into the anarcho-syndicalist FORA and the ‘neutral’ FORA IX, on a trajectory of integration into the state. Such a split did not occur elsewhere in the anarcho-syndicalist movement until 1956, when the Swedish SAC left the International Workers Association (IWA) in a row over administering state unemployment benefits; again in 1979, when the CNT in Spain split, producing the CGT-E; and 1993, when the French CNT split into the CNT-AIT and CNT-Vignoles, the latter two over participation in state sponsored works council elections (state backed bodies in which unions compete for votes to represent workers, and receive proportional state subsidies in return). By the end of the 20th century, these tendencies had more or less all spun out into separate organisations. It is the anarcho-syndicalist (i.e. IWA) current with which we are concerned here.120

As we have seen, anarcho-syndicalism combines the political philosophy and goals of anarchism with the economic organisation and methods of syndicalism. This political economic organisation is a matter of practical experimentation, taking different forms in different places, adapted to circumstances. As the then secretary of the IWA, Pierre Besnard, wrote in 1937,

“like any truly social doctrine, anarcho-syndicalism is essentially a matter of trial and error. (…) [T]he idea springs from the act and returns to it.”121

This trial and error approach inevitably includes errors, such as those in Spain. But if the economic content of anarcho-syndicalism is self-evident – organising workers as workers to fight for their interests – then what is the political content? Lenin famously commented that “politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions.”122 Anarcho-syndicalists could not disagree more strongly. This is in fact one of the fundamental differences with Marxism, even in its more libertarian forms. Pepe Gomez, a CNT militant active in the Puerto Real shipyard disputes of 1987, shrewdly noted that:

“There are two points inherited from a Marxist perspective. First of all, Marxism separates the political and the economic to try and promote the idea of economic unions, unions that deal purely and simply with economic issues, whereas the political issues are tackled by the political party. Secondly, we are left with the need to struggle against the whole culture that has been built up around delegating activities, around delegating power to others. Anarcho-syndicalism is trying to oppose these negative legacies of Marxism, so that people are actually re-educated in order to destroy this culture of dependency and to build up a new kind of culture that is based on activity and action for people, by themselves.”123

The contention that politics requires millions is precisely the reason Marxism separates the political and the economic; the party needs to develop the ideas with which to lead the millions. For the council communists of the AAUD-E, this is why their political economic union was meant to be temporary; for them, political and economic struggles only combined in the mass struggles of the revolutionary period in Germany. For anarcho-syndicalists, however, politics begin long, long before there are blossoming mass movements. Mass movements are only the culmination of a huge number of smaller, preparatory struggles which are both economic and political in nature and which shape the character of mass movements when they occur. Politics is weaved into our everyday lives and conflicts. To begin to explore this contention, a quote from the historian of syndicalism, Marcel van der Linden, is instructive:

“In practice there seem to be at least three analytical levels which quite often are not, or not sufficiently, distinguished. In the first place, we could distinguish the ideological level, at which one thinks about the movement in a general, political-philosophical way. At issue here are questions such as: what is the world really like? What is unjust, bad, etc.? Who are our enemies and friends? What social changes are possible, and how can they be accomplished? Secondly, we could distinguish the organisational level: how is the trade union structured (for example subscriptions, strike funds) and how does it behave in daily practice, when labour conflicts occur, towards employers and the state? Thirdly, there is the shopfloor level: are the workers who are members militant and strike prone? What forms of action do they favour?”124

Thus, we can think of the political content of anarcho-syndicalism as consisting of three interconnected levels. On the shop floor level, it consists in seeing that even ‘economic’ struggles for wages or rents are, at the same time, political struggles for power over the workplace and community. At the organisational level, it consists of the associational function of a union, stripped of any representative functions, and with structures, based on mandates and delegates, within which workers can collectively speak for themselves. At the ideological level, it consists of an opposition to integration into the state and the management of capitalism, and the goal of libertarian communism. These levels are interconnected; for example, integration into the state funded system of works councils would result in a development of a representative function at the organisational level and changes to the functioning of the union at the shop floor level, where management’s right to manage would need to be accepted as a condition of participation in the industrial relations framework. While the emphasis between the different levels may differ, e.g. the FORA’s ‘ideological unionism’ compared with the CNT’s ‘non-ideological unionism’, in reality all three levels are intimately connected to both the form and content of the union’s activity. Together, they distinguish revolutionary unionism from reformist versions, although there is not, and cannot be, a monolithic anarcho-syndicalism across all times and places.

Another example of the political content of a revolutionary union would be the commitment to approaches to anti-racism and the emancipation of women. The old IWW was multiracial at a time of widespread segregation, and this was certainly a political assertion of class principles, going against the prevailing grain of the times. The FAUD attempted, albeit with only modest success, to set up women’s leagues for self-education and discussion about the situation of working class women. Perhaps the most famous case is Spain’s Mujeres Libres (‘Free Women’). This was a group formed by anarcho-syndicalist women of the CNT in 1936, largely in response to the marginalisation of women within the male dominated union, despite its formal commitment to women’s emancipation. The very existence of the Mujeres Libres was an indication of a failing of the CNT to express the needs of the whole class, i.e. not just the male half of it. It is a clear example of the way political content does not exist only on an ideological level, but is an immensely practical thing too. Indeed, it’s relatively easy to adopt a formal ideological position in favour of women’s emancipation, without really integrating that organisationally or in practical shop floor activity. In this sense the ideological level is the least important.

Van der Linden argues that confusion arises when some but not all of these shop floor, organisational and ideological levels are present. Certainly, this is true in some of the syndicalist unions we considered in Chapter 2. But in practice, such contradictions will tend to be resolved one way or another.  A union which organisationally excludes women or minorities is likely to reproduce divides along these lines rather than traversing them. A militant and strike prone union, without any revolutionary ideology, will either develop one and refuse to be integrated into state and management structures, or it won’t and will likely find its militancy increasingly checked by bureaucratic obstacles thrown up by developing representative functions. Or, of course, it could take up the offer of integration into the system, as many a once militant union has done before. On the other hand, ideological anarcho-syndicalist groups which lack any organisational or shop floor capacity for direct action are not unions at all, but propaganda groups (the Solidarity Federation has only recently begun to develop beyond this). The question of how to move from such a position towards being a functioning revolutionary union is one we take up in our final chapter. Van der Linden is right to stress that ideology is not decisive. Just because an organisation says it is anarcho-syndicalist (or libertarian communist, revolutionary, feminist etc) doesn’t make it so. But neither is ideology unimportant, whether it is expressed implicitly through refusal to be integrated into state and management structures and other aspects of its practice, or is more overtly stated.

However, for anarcho-syndicalism, fidelity to revolutionary principles has come at a cost. Since World War II, the capitalist strategy for dealing with organised labour in the most developed countries switched definitively from repression to recuperation (this is the subject of the following chapter). Unions were invited in as partners in social management. For the IWA, this provoked a series of splits. When the SAC withdrew from the IWA in 1956, with Franco’s dictatorship still strong in Spain and the CNT in exile, this left the IWA with no functioning union sections. Thus, Malatesta’s claim about the impossibility of synthesising anarchism and syndicalism seemed to be proved correct, as the only functioning syndicalist unions were of a reformist character. The aforementioned splits in Spain and France over participation in works’ councils were another reflection of this problem. By the end of the 20th century, anarcho-syndicalism was reduced to a militant, minority current, even in its strongest sections.

Today, the organised labour movement is plural and reflects the working class, with a range of unions and initiatives from revolutionary to reformist, and through to outright fascist and scab unions at the other extreme. Consequently, if revolutionary unionists are to avoid the division of the working class via separate unions, we need to find ways to organise struggles which unite workers beyond our membership and avoid divisions along union lines. The struggles in Puerto Real were one clear example; there, the CNT played a pivotal role in organising workplace and community assemblies which united workers and their families regardless of union membership. Consequently, the CNT was able to catalyse self-organised struggle along direct action lines. It couldn’t have done this without a well established, organised basis in the workplace (i.e. its union section in the shipyards). But equally, it didn’t require the CNT to turn itself into a purely economic union and recruit a majority of workers regardless of whether they shared its aims and approach (though it surely grew from its activities).

Such assemblies are far from a panacea and are prone to many of the weaknesses of soviets, such as co-option by political parties, or larger reformist unions, or the degeneration into reformism and bureaucracy. But ultimately this is a ‘weakness’ of democracy, i.e. if enough workers do not want revolutionary change or direct action methods, little can be done to force them whether they are organised in assemblies, committees, councils or unions. Rather, the fact the union is made up of those who do want these things means the struggle can be used as a prove the necessity for social revolution and direct action methods, and through the struggle, to win more workers round to revolutionary unionism. For example, as gains are eroded by inflation or legislation, or as the cops intervene on the side of the bosses, the anarcho-syndicalist union’s anti-capitalist, anti-state perspective can be shown to make sense and can thereby broaden its appeal as the best way to advance our economic and wider class interests. The organisational forms taken by anarcho-syndicalism are intimately related to its practical content, the twofold task of waging the everyday class struggle in defence of and to advance our living standards, and doing so in such a way which prepares the working class for social revolution, building confidence through collective direct action, engendering a culture of solidarity, and creating a working class public sphere where revolutionary ideas can be debated and developed as part of a real, practical movement.

“Here we come to the general cultural significance of the labour struggle. The economic alliance of the producers not only affords them a weapon for the enforcement of better living conditions, it becomes for them a practical school, a university of experience, from which they draw instruction and enlightenment in richest measure.”125

Through the process of struggle, people change. A revolutionary union presence on the shop floor or in the local area can regroup those who want to organise along anarcho-syndicalist lines to carry on further struggles, even when the wider struggles ebb. The CNT continued to organise when the big Puerto Real struggles and the mass assemblies ran their course, and indeed was strengthened by this process. Much the same was in evidence with the FAUD, which declined following the revolutionary period in Germany, but still remained consistently larger than their pre-revolution predecessors until fascist repression finished them off. This exposes a fundamental flaw in Malatesta’s argument for the separation of economic syndicalism and political anarchism. It’s not necessary, after all, for a union to drop its anarchist principles in order to organise. It just needs a more radical approach which does not see the union as the container into which to bring the whole working class, but rather as a catalyst which acts within the working class to organise direct action along anarcho-syndicalist lines. Even as a minority, a revolutionary union can organise struggles, and through these struggles demonstrate its ideas in practice, grow, consolidate, and organise bigger struggles in turn. Of course this process is not continuous or without setbacks. The membership and influence of even the CNT in the 1920s and 1930s fluctuated wildly with wider social conditions. But whatever the conditions, the revolutionary union seeks to organise class conflicts using direct action, in such a way as to prepare workers for revolutionary social change by experiencing self-organised struggles, practical solidarity and the taste of victories won by our own efforts.

Furthermore, while trade unions often divide the class, a plural union movement, which by the end of the 20th century was a point of fact, does not have to mean divided workers. We absolutely want to win as many workers as possible to anarcho-syndicalism. But while they’re not won over, we still need solidarity on a class basis. A revolutionary union can commit itself to supporting the struggles of workers in the more reformist unions on a principled class basis. The recent rapprochement between the CNT and CGT in Spain, with co-operation in working towards a general strike against austerity measures, bodes well for such class based unionism.126 Of course, there is no guarantee this will be reciprocated. Anarcho-syndicalists may respect a TUC union picket line, but we can hardly expect TUC unions to respect ours. We can, however, appeal directly to the workers in more reformist unions to respect class solidarity, and will be in a stronger position to do so if we’ve already supported them, and have the organisational capacity to do so. If the principal form taken by anarcho-syndicalism is the revolutionary union as a political economic organisation, the principal content of its activity is the organisation of class conflicts which serve as both the means to directly meet our immediate demands and as a “practical education in social philosophy.”127

As we have seen, anarcho-syndicalism found its widest appeal in Spain and Argentina. Where conditions differed, e.g. in Germany or within the French CGT, anarcho-syndicalism operated more as a revolutionary minority. Indeed, as we saw, even Emile Pouget foresaw that, going into a revolutionary process, the revolutionary union would be "an active minority."128 The million strong CNT of 1936 would surely have amazed him! The mass appeal of anarcho-syndicalism in certain times and places seems to stem from three main factors.

1. The context of early industrialisation. This had several important aspects. First, the dramatic social turmoil of industrialisation and urbanisation made capitalism something new, and meant many workers had either direct experience of this novelty, or it was within living memory. Capitalism was clearly a historical system and millions of people had experienced something else (even if that was rural poverty). The second aspect was that the countries where anarcho-syndicalism flourished the most, i.e. those that lacked widespread industry, also lacked developed trade union movements, meaning anarcho-syndicalism was 'the only game in town', or at least lacked the competition of established reformist unions with a high and stable membership and a cosy relationship to the state. Contrast this with the more developed countries like Britain and Germany, where syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism operated mainly as militant minority tendencies inside and outside the established unions.

2. The lack of political integration of the working class into the state. Argentina and Spain were dictatorships or fragile republics. Suffrage was rarely universal. In Argentina, many militant workers were migrants too, and ineligible to vote. Workers had little opportunity to participate in party politics even if they wanted to. This did not eliminate party socialism, but did provide a huge boost to direct actionists, as well as increasing the appeal of anarchist ideology which preached that the state was a tool of the ruling class and couldn't be used for liberatory purposes. This is different today, although the dismantling of the welfare state and the declining appeal of 'post-political' party politics may be taking things back in the direction of a more naked 'us and them' (this will be explored in the following chapter).

3. In many ways related to the above, the ruling class in these places opted for repression of working class organisation rather than accepting and seeking to integrate it (as had happened in Britain for example, or Germany, with the legalisation of the factory councils). Of course they used repression because it could be effective; we saw how the IWW was smashed in the US. However, the flipside of this was that it polarised society between haves and have nots and legitimised revolutionary ideas. If you were going to be imprisoned or murdered for being a union activist, once you made the decision to become a union activist, you did so as a revolutionary unionist almost automatically. There is another side to this. As we've seen, reformists within the CNT argued that they could reduce repression by playing by the rules and seeking a rapprochement with the state. However, their overtures were rebuffed (until after the events of July 1936 at least), which limited the space for the reformist tendency to grow. Class collaboration takes two, and with bosses and the state favouring repression over recuperation, reformists had little gains to show for their efforts and thus had less appeal than they otherwise might have had. The ruling class preference for repression made it appear as a choice between revolution or nothing, which suited the revolutionaries.

None of these conditions from Argentina, Germany or Spain in the early 20th century are likely to be replicated wholesale, certainly in the most developed countries, or even elsewhere where the ruling classes have the benefits of learning from their class brethren's mistakes. But we should also not make the mistake of taking the historical high points of anarcho-syndicalism as defining the whole tradition. Even in Spain and Argentina, membership and influence fluctuated wildly. And in their survey of revolutionary syndicalist currents, Marcel van der Linden and Wayne Thorpe remind us that overall, syndicalism of all stripes represents "a distinctive minority tradition."128  That is not to say anarcho-syndicalism cannot seek or achieve mass appeal. Obviously, we work for the widest possible adoption of our ideas and methods. But we don’t rely on such a mass appeal.

Anarcho-syndicalists can get on with the business of organising collective direct action in our own lives and workplaces perfectly well as a militant minority if needs be, while hopefully earning the respect of fellow workers with our principled and consistent solidarity, even if they, for now, do not share our revolutionary, anti-capitalist, anti-state perspective. As contemporary conditions are not identical to those in 1900s France, or 1910s Argentina, or 1920s Germany, or 1930s Spain, we cannot simply pluck Pouget, or the FORA, or the FAUD, or the CNT from history as a ready made blueprint. Rather, we must adapt by trial and error the political economic core of anarcho-syndicalism to present conditions, just as they did, whilst learning from their mistakes. We must therefore analyse the changing conditions since World War II (Chapter 4), before setting out our revolutionary unionist strategy for the 21st century (Chapter 5).


In this chapter we have encountered four distinctive forms of 20th century anarcho-syndicalism in the theory of Émile Pouget, the Argentine FORA, the German FAUD and the Spanish CNT. We then drew on these examples to understand anarcho-syndicalism as a practice of trial and error around a political economic core, combining anarchist principles and syndicalist methods in ways adapted to the conditions of particular times and places. We ended by taking stock of the situation at the end of the 20th century, with anarcho-syndicalism constituting a militant minority current within the working class, and discussed how this need not be a barrier to effective agitation and organisation on a class basis, nor to an effective revolutionary unionism.

Further reading

Vadim Damier’s ‘Anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th century’ is the most comprehensive account in the English language, itself an abridged translation of a longer Russian text. Rudolf Rocker’s ‘Anarcho-syndicalism in theory and practice’ remains an important read on the origins of anarcho-syndicalism and the movement up to WWII. Units 13-18 of SelfEd focus on anarcho-syndicalism and Spain in particular, while unit 9 looks at Argentina. The Direct Action Movement pamphlet ‘Revolutionary unionism in Latin America – the FORA in Argentina’ is also well worth the read. Hans Manfred Bock’s chapter in Marcel van der Linden and Wayne Thorpe’s edited volume ‘Revolutionary Syndicalism’ is a good account of the FAUD in Germany. Abel Paz’s ‘Durruti in the Spanish Revolution’ is far more than a simple biography (though it excels at that) and contains important information on the period, as well as the internal wrangling in the CNT between reformists and revolutionaries. Jose Peirats’ three-volume ‘The CNT in the Spanish Revolution’ is considered the most official and authoritative account. Martha Acklesberg’s ‘Free Women of Spain’ is a book length account of the Mujeres Libres.