1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Syndicalism

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SYNDICALISM. — “Syndicalism” is the name given to a form of socialist doctrine elaborated by, and born from the experience of, the members of the French syndicats or trade unions. On the one hand it is a body of social doctrine, or theory of social organization; on the other it is a plan of action for the realization of this ideal. Of all the social theories competing for existence it is the most purely proletarian in origin. One writer indeed has described it as “working-class Socialism” (le socialisme ouvrier) in contradistinction to the types of socialism originated and propagated by middle-class “intellectuals.” Without unduly stressing the importance of this fact, it may be said that syndicalism is that form of socialist theory which regards the trade-union organizations, entirely proletarian in origin and direction, as at once the foundations of the new society and the instruments by which it is to be erected.

The syndicalist starts from the assumptions common to most schools of socialist thought. He affirms the inherent injustice of the wages system and the fundamental immorality of capitalist society, which is based, in his belief, on the exploitation of labour. He accepts and pushes to its logical conclusion the Marxian dogma of the class war; he therefore affirms that solidarity of interests does not, and cannot, exist as between employer and employed, between capitalist and wage-earner. From these premises he draws the usual socialist conclusion, namely, that individual ownership of the instruments of production must be abolished and communal ownership and control substituted for it. But at this point syndicalism and socialism (as usually understood) part company. Whereas the orthodox socialist demands control by the consumers acting through the State and its dependent organs the municipalities, the syndicalist demand, until very recently, was for producers' control, acting through the organizations of their own creation — the trade unions. This is the essential feature of syndicalist theory, that which differentiates it from other revolutionary schools of thought. The arguments usually employed by its advocates may be briefly set out.

State organization and control of industry are, in their view, incompatible with true working-class emancipation. The State is, and must be, an instrument of class domination; it is indeed “the executive committee of the capitalist class.” It exists to defend the interests of that class, and is consequently as much the enemy of labour as capital itself. To extend its powers would be to twine the bonds of wage slavery ever more firmly about the workers' limbs. The State is, however, hopelessly wedded to an uncreative bureaucracy, incapable of initiative and ignorant of industrial technique. Its control, even if it were benevolent (which the syndicalist denies it could be), would necessarily be despotic and inefficient; the spirit of routine would combine with inexperience to crush out the possibility of economic progress. Here, as will be seen, the syndicalist endorses the ordinary individualistic criticism of State socialism. Producers' control, exercised through the syndicats, would, on the other hand, combine freedom with efficiency. Every worker would participate directly in the government of his industry; he would thus enjoy the substance of democracy instead of the shadow offered him by the bourgeois State. Moreover, the worker would be led to identify his personal interests with the successful conduct of the industry; he would have a pride in his work which would manifest itself in improved quality and greater output, thus producers' control would be justified both on human and economic grounds.

The form of social organization in which this ideal could be realized was, until recently, conceived somewhat as follows. The unit of organization would be the local syndicat. This would be brought into touch with the local groups by means of the Bourse du Travail, the present function of which is to act at once as an employment agency and a general centre for trade-union activities. When all the producers were thus linked together by the bourse, the administration of the latter would be able to estimate the economic capacities and necessities of the region, could coördinate production, and, being in touch through other bourses with the industrial system as a whole, could arrange for the necessary transfer of materials and commodities, inwards and outwards. A species of “economic federation” would thus replace the structure of capitalist industry, with which would necessarily disappear the political and administrative machinery of the State. Two features of this Utopia need to be emphasized: consumers as such were excluded from any share in industrial control, and a localized system of industry was envisaged.

This latter feature was a direct reflexion of French economic circumstances; both industry and trade-unionism were much more local in range than in other and more highly developed countries. But the movement towards large-scale organization which has so profoundly affected every aspect of economic life in recent years has produced a corresponding modification in syndicalist ideals. At the same time, it has begun to be recognized by the theorists of the movement that the consumers' point of view cannot wholly be disregarded. The experience of the World War has also had its effect. The Congress of Lyons, therefore, in 1919 was moving with the times when, in demanding the “industrialized nationalization of the great services of modern economy: land and water transport, mines, water-power, and credit organizations,” it defined “nationalization” as “the confiding of national property to the interested parties, namely, the associated producers and consumers.” This clearly envisages organization on a national scale and the participation of consumers' organizations in control.

Syndicalist theory starts, as has been said, from the idea of a class war which must be waged relentlessly till a complete social transformation has been accomplished. The essential weapon in this struggle is the power of the organized workers. As the cause of the conflict is economic it must necessarily be fought out in the economic sphere. Syndicalist congresses have persistently repudiated political action, and pinned their faith to a general strike as the grand instrument of social revolution. This reliance upon industrial or “direct” methods of action flows necessarily from the fundamental notions of syndicalism as to the nature of the State, and also from strictly practical considerations. Outside the mine or factory, workingmen hold divergent religious or political opinions which make effective mass action difficult, if not impossible. Inside, the nature of their employment gives them a sense of solidarity which overrides minor differences and bands them together in the syndicat for common defence; to persuade them to pass from the defensive to the offensive is the syndicalist's task, and in the accomplishment of this political labels and controversies would be a hindrance. Moreover, the political party is not, and cannot be, a class organization. The Socialist parties swarm with men of middle-class origin whose only bond with the workers is the slender one of opinion. In any event, the political party is an inefficient instrument for revolution; it can only operate effectively at electoral periods, and even then the mass of voters do nothing more than cast a ballot and return to their customary apathy for a term of years. Political action does nothing to rouse them from that apathy, to inspire them with revolutionary élan, to train them to initiative and independent thought. On the contrary, it asks for nothing better than docile followers of self-constituted leaders. The strike, therefore, is the characteristic syndicalist weapon. However limited in its scope and object, it is an educative experience; successful, it inspires the workers with a sense of power; unsuccessful, it impresses upon them the servility of their lot and the necessity for better organization and wider aims. Thus every strike is a preparation for the revolutionary “day,” when the workers, or a fighting minority of them (for syndicalism repudiates as bourgeois the dogma of the sacredness of majority rule), shall seize the instruments of production by an “expropriatory” strike. In the meantime, they are working out from day to day, in the ordinary course of their employment, the ethics and the jurisprudence of the new social order.

The strike, of course, is not the only weapon in the syndicalist armoury. Various other means of waging the class war, known collectively as sabotage, are both preached and practised. These range from bad or slow work to the grève perlée (destruction of goods or machinery) and the chasse aux renards (assaults on “blacklegs” or jaunes). It is fair to say that many syndicalist leaders criticize these methods as destructive of the worker's moral and technical competence.

Syndicalism is essentially French in origin and reflects French working-class experience and conditions of life; nevertheless the history of Great Britain shows interesting foreshadowings of it. The idea of industrial self-government by the producers attracted for a time the mobile mind of Robert Owen; and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of 1834 was an attempt to realize it in practice. James Morrison, a young self-taught operative builder, seems to have originated the syndicalist conception of class antagonism on the part of the working-classes (see Max Beer, History of British Socialism). The Building Trades Union had developed the same notion in the previous year (S. and B. Webb, History of Trade Unionism). The plan of a general strike — originated by one Benbow — for a time, under the strange title of the “Sacred Month,” made part of Chartist propaganda. There is no evidence, however, that these projects had any echo on the European continent. The syndicalist idea, as understood in France, may be said to have originated in the discussions of the International Working Men's Association. A French delegate to the Congress of Basle in 1869, for instance, prophesied that “the grouping of different trades in the city will form the commune of the future” when “government will be replaced by federated councils of syndicats and by a committee of their respective delegates regulating the relations of labour —  this taking the place of politics” (Levine, Syndicalism in France). The collapse of trade-unionism in France after the sanguinary suppression of the Communalist insurrection in 1871 had as a necessary consequence the submergence of these ideals for a considerable period, and only a combination of favouring circumstances brought them once more to light. Among these the discontent of the organized workers with Socialist politics, and the anarchist propaganda of a general strike, may be particularly mentioned. These influences manifested themselves with increasing strength during the 'nineties in the two great labour organizations of the period — the General Confederation of Labour (or “C.G.T.” under its French initials) and the Federation of Bourses du Travail. The secretary of this latter organization, Pelloutier, did more perhaps than any other individual to work out the characteristic doctrines of syndicalism and spread them among his fellow-workers. When these two bodies joined forces in 1902, trade-unionism in general and syndicalism in particular received an immense accession of strength, and the doctrine subsequently remained — in spite of the efforts of political socialists to capture the syndicats for their own purposes — the characteristic expression of French revolutionary idealism.

As such, it has inevitably received much attention from observers and writers drawn from other social classes. Of these the best known is Georges Sorel, but it is a complete error to suppose that he was the originator of syndicalism, or that he has had much influence on working-class opinion. The difficult form of his writings, with their frequent obscurity and lack of continuity, would alone have made this impossible. Sorel's adaptation of the Bergsonian doctrine of the “élan vital” to syndicalist purposes, and his theory of “social myths” (of which the general strike is one), have had considerable influence upon intellectual circles, but have affected no more than a fringe of working-class readers.

Syndicalist doctrine has had considerable influence outside France. In the United States, a movement of somewhat similar character arose with the organization of the Industrial Workers of the World. The Chicago Convention of the I.W.W. in 1905 drew up a declaration, the preamble of which affirmed the reality of the class struggle, embodied the theory of social organization which this involves and further made a plan for the realization of this ideal: — 

“The unit of organization industrially is the workshop or Yard Committee, wherein the workers are organized as workers, irrespective of craft, grade, or sex. These Committees are coördinated by the formation of Works or Plant Committees, composed of delegates from each Workshop or Yard Committee. The Plant or Works Committees are coordinated by delegates from each of these Committees, in a village, town, city, or district, forming a Workers' Council, in which there are also delegates from the residential committees, these latter being the units of the social aspects of the organization.”

The above scheme differs very little from the general theory of syndicalism in France, and presents a simple parallel to the shop-stewards' movement in Great Britain, which indeed was based upon it. The influence of the I.W.W., it may be noted, was, largely confined to the alien immigrant workers: it never penetrated the American Federation of Labor to any serious degree.

The influence of these ideas on the trade-union movement in Great Britain and Ireland has been very pronounced, though they have taken a different direction, modified by the traditional, conservative instinct of the British working-class. In Great Britain the real cause of the permeation of certain unions by syndicalist ideas was the absorption of trade-union leaders in administration or in politics, which caused them to lose touch with the rank and file. Especially is this the case with regard to the miners, the railwaymen's unions and the engineers.

Daniel de Leon was leader of the Socialist Labour party in the United States from 1880 onwards, and his writings influenced British socialist thought, particularly in the Clyde and in the mining valleys of S. Wales. Though not a syndicalist in the strict sense, he advocated organization by industry and the general strike. It is significant that 1903 saw in England the secession of the Socialist Labour party from the Social Democratic Federation. After that date, in addition to the growing educational influence of the Independent Labour party (though this was never syndicalist), was seen the promotion of the Workers' Socialist Federation, the British Socialist party (in the post-war period) and the Communist League, all of which advocated practically the same structure of organization and policy. They all agreed in a lack of faith in political action, though not always refusing to utilize it, but their real politik was industrial action. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, they secured greater prominence; they became the stormy petrels of the labour world in Great Britain, and their effect on the political action of the Labour party was seen in the Council of Action in Aug. 1920.

In England, between 1900 and 1910, there was a growing dissatisfaction among the rank and file with political action, despite the fact that the influence of the Labour party in the House of Commons secured the trade-union movement freedom of industrial and political action by the Trades Disputes Act of 1906 and the Trade Union Act of 1913 to a greater degree than ever before, it was felt by the far-sighted among the rank and file that a speeding up was necessary, and State collectivism as a way out towards industrial democracy was discredited. James Connolly, the Irish Labour leader who was executed after the Easter rising in Ireland in 1916, started a similar organization to that of Daniel de Leon on the Clyde in 1905. In his pamphlet Socialism made Easy he enunciated the syndicalist principles “that they who rule industrially will rule politically,” and that “the functions of Industrial Unionism is to build up an industrial republic inside the shell of the political slate, in order that when the industrial republic is fully organized it may crack the shell of the political slate and step into its place in the scheme of the universe.” Tom Mann, while in France and Australia, which had imported the ideas of the I.W.W. from America, was also powerfully influenced by the same theories, while on the Rand, in S. Africa, a small but very influential group of leaders was working out the structure, forms and policy of a movement similar in character. In 1910 Tom Mann preached the new faith in all the big industrial centres and rapidly won many followers. Workmen had refused to follow their orthodox leaders from about 1908, as they felt that the trade union of the old Liberal-Labour school was behind the times. The Plebs League was founded by a group of labour students in Ruskin College, Oxford, about the same time, and in 1909 these seceded from Ruskin College and founded first a labour college in Oxford and then moved to London as the Central Labour College, financed by the S. Wales miners and the railwaymen. This educational movement organized classes in every mining area in S. Wales, led by tutors from these two colleges, and influenced largely by the new ideas. A similar movement took place on the Clyde, in the great ship-building centres like Barrow, Birkenhead, and Pembroke Dock, and also in inland engineering centres like Coventry and Sheffield. Then followed the railway strike of 1911 and the great coal strike of 1912. It is quite clear that the National Union of Railwaymen and the Miners' Federation of Great Britain became organized as two of the most powerful unions in consequence of the new thought, not because their leaders had adopted syndicalism in the form taught by de Leon and the French group of thinkers, but because they adapted it in the peculiar British way; they made it practical and definite; they shaped it in alliance with the political and trade-union structure of Britain. They disagreed with the syndicalist view of the State, but they recognized the driving power of the theories that stated “that political power is a reflex of industrial power.” The transport workers soon had a similar federation, and after the strikes of 1911 and 1912, and the Irish transport workers' strike of 1913, the Triple Alliance (of railwaymen, transport workers, and miners) was formed in 1915. The failure of this last to function during the miners' strike in the spring of 1921 discredited “direct action,” and the British labour movement swung back towards constitutional and parliamentary methods.

See J. A. Estey, Revolutionary Syndicalism (1913); L. Levine, Syndicalism in France (2nd ed. 1914); G. D. H. Cole, Self-Government in Industry (3rd ed. 1918), The World of Labour (1919), Labour in the Commonwealth (1919), Introduction to Trade Unionism (1918); S. and B. Webb, History of Trade Unionism (1920); H. Lagardelle, Le socialisme ouvrier (1911); J. R. Macdonald, Syndicalism (1912); John Spargo, Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism (1920); Bertrand Russell, Principles of Social Reconstruction (6th ed. 1920); Arthur Gleason, What the Workers Want (1920); The Industrial Council for the Building Industry 1919 (Garton Foundation); G. D. H. Cole, Guild Socialism Re-stated (1920); J. Graham Brooke, American Syndicalism (1913); P. F. Brissenden, The I. W. W. (1919); James Connolly, Socialism made Easy (1905); N. Ablett, The Miners' next Step (1912); A Plan for the Democratic Control of the Mining Industry (South Wales Socialist Society, 1919); J. T. Murphy, The Workers' Committee (1918). (S. H.; J. M. R.)