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A hybrid doctrine born of the cross-fertilization of libertarian theory and radical labor practice, anarchosyndicalism had its roots in the unstable soil of nineteenth-century class conflict. By the 1890s, many anarchists accepted the trade union (syndicat) as the main organ of revolution and the embryo of future society, thus shedding their "purist" excesses of bomb-throwing "propaganda by the deed." Over time, this new "revolutionary" syndicalism itself evolved closer to reformist social democracy, despite the discourse of militant autonomy from party politics as pronounced in the Amiens Charter by France's General Confederation of Labor (CGT) in 1906. Yet the onset of World War I, plus the rise of worldwide communist parties, reopened the question of how (or whether) to pursue a class-based revolutionary agenda. Should workers follow "bourgeois" governments into war, thus serving as cannon fodder? Should they remain wary of party politics, or instead embrace newly proletarianized parties more worthy of their support? How far should they subordinate labor goals to political intentions, including the demands of a dictatorial party-state? If the late nineteenth century may be seen as the heyday of doctrinal debates within the anarchist and syndicalist movements, the twentieth century was the era of hard choices in revolutionary practice, including the roles to play in world wars, revolutions, and new communist and fascist regimes.

Scholars disagree on how far World War I marked a clear turning point for left-wing theory and practice, as for other features of European politics and culture. But few doubt that the war and its aftermath at least threatened to make anarchosyndicalism a reactionary vestige of the past, as Marxists and Leninists had long assumed. The term itself, apparently coined in Russia in 1907, entered more common leftist parlance in the 1920s, mostly in a pejorative fashion. For a new generation of militants, the war's boost to mass production and to the centralized power of bourgeois states made a similarly centralized, even "bolshevized," labor movement a necessary counterweight, even if it reduced unions to mere "transmission belts" from party leaders to the masses. In this altered context, anarchosyndicalists would have to shift gears, adopt new tactics, and win new constituencies if they hoped to remain relevant in the modern age.


Socialists and syndicalists across Europe had once spurned bourgeois warfare as what Jean Jaurès called "the supreme diversion" from labor struggles. Yet in both belligerent camps the war created a spirit of "Sacred Union" that linked Left and Right in defense of the nations-in-arms—at least at first. By 1917, this unity began dissolving in mass strikes and antiwar protests, as a result of the war's huge toll in blood and gold, plus the heavy pressures even on factory workers behind the lines. Protests climaxed in the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and in widespread strikes from 1918 through 1920, thus surviving the Armistice, as gains even for the victors hardly justified the expenses. Neutral countries such as Spain were also engulfed by wartime inflation and postwar insurgency, which helped launch communist parties throughout the world.

Like their socialist comrades, anarchists and syndicalists were hardly united in their choices for or against Sacred Union. Although some anarchists published antiwar texts, others—notably Jean Grave, Peter Kropotkin, and Errico Malatesta—rallied to the Entente's fight against "Prussian militarism." France's CGT leaders later claimed only to have deferred to the masses in their failure to mobilize against the war. But despite these uncertainties, syndicalists were often the last to embrace national defense, the first to join strikes, and the most intent on radicalizing them beyond simple material demands. Anarchosyndicalists even hailed bolshevism as "a revolution of a syndicalist nature" (Pierre Monatte), with Russia's "soviets" the workers' councils of the future. And yet the attempted bolshevization of the international labor movement left syndicalists in and outside Russia unwilling to subordinate their goals to Soviet dictate; most refused to join or soon quit (or were expelled from) the new Third (Communist) International, especially by 1924.


Although many prewar syndicalists remained on the far left, in or outside the Third International, after the war, others continued their prewar slide toward reformism, convinced that a "politics of presence" in bourgeois governments was the best way to make their voices heard. Such was the case for France's postwar CGT, which retained the majority of unionized members even after a schism parallel to the party split that created—and gave a majority to—the French Communist Party (PCF). On the left, the new CGTU (CGT Unitaire) rallied dissident as well as communist unionists, including renegades from the newly bolshevized PCF. But a sectarian fringe quit the CGTU to form the new CGTSR (CGT Syndicaliste Révolutionnaire) in 1926, led by self-styled libertarian purist Pierre Besnard.

Railroad worker and theoretician, author of several books on the spirit and vision of anarchosyndicalism, Besnard disliked the pejorative term and called for an updated, "rationalized" labor movement: "The period of revolutionary romanticism is finished!" Yet despite his acceptance of group organization and collective responsibility, Besnard's critics on the left called him an "apostle of schism" for creating the splinter group, and a utopian dreamer for proposing the six-hour day and a uniform wage for all. The CGTSR's aura also lay more in the past than the future: its Lyon Charter mirrored the old Amiens Charter (both were drafted by the same author, Victor Griffuelhes), and its international federation, which Besnard later headed (it was formed in Berlin in 1921, to rival the Moscow-based Profintern), took the name of the International Working Man's Association (IWMA), echoing the old First International of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

The IWMA also rallied small syndicalist groups across Europe, Asia, and Latin America; but its largest member—soon the world's largest syndicalist union—was Spain's National Confederation of Labor (CNT). Founded on the French model in 1911, and still openly libertarian in ethos, the CNT was one of the rare anarchosyndicalist bodies to gain and hold a majority of its nation's unionists after the post–World War I schisms. It was in Spain that anarchosyndicalism remained truest to its millenarian origins, including a sustained "bombist" streak, due both to the slow growth there of modern mass production and to the CNT's long years in clandestinity before and after the war. Teamed with the anarchist FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation, founded in 1927), the CNT targeted rural areas with its program of land expropriation. Its diverse members included Marxists, social democrats, and "anarcho-Bolsheviks" who embraced Spain's Popular Front in 1936.

Against the purist Besnard (who likewise opposed France's own Popular Front), the CNT took ministerial posts in Spain's left-republican government and then faced the dilemma of how to exercise power without losing its identity in the "bourgeois" state. These CNT leaders also deferred their long-term antimilitarist and revolutionary agenda for the immediate defense of the republic in Spain's civil war. Still, Spain's example energized a generation of militants for whom bolshevism was no longer the sole extant revolution demanding their allegiance. Rank-and-file anarchists, inspired in part by regionalist aims, practiced worker self-management in communal collectives in Catalonia and elsewhere. But their libertarian goals collided with those of Spain's Soviet-sponsored Communist Party and the latter's own unions, as recounted in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938). These conflicts on the left hastened the right-wing military victory of Francisco Franco in 1939.

If not World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, it was the rise of right-wing dictatorships, such as in Spain, that marked the long eclipse of anarchosyndicalism until its partial reemergence after 1945. Some syndicalists in Italy and elsewhere, especially those drawn from intellectual circles outside organized labor, rallied toward early fascism in hopes that a "national" socialism or syndicalism might offer a more genuinely radical or populist alternative to Marxism. Such "third-way" currents were transient but frequent experiments in the "nonconformist" politics of the interwar era. But whatever the anarchist echoes on the right, most anarchosyndicalists remained fierce libertarians, opposed to the dictatorships of either wing.

Before the fascists took power, Italy's anarchosyndicalists had joined in the wave of mass strikes and factory occupations of 1919 and 1920, alongside the "council communists" led by Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) and his group at the journal L'Ordine nuovo (The new order), based in Turin. Occupying the factories was a tactic suited to the postwar recession, when surplus stocks erased employers' incentive to settle a strike. For syndicalists, factory councils also seemed more responsive to workers' goals—including eventual self-governance—than the centralized unions that were succumbing to Bolshevik dictate. Yet the communist Gramsci still dubbed syndicalism an "instinctive, elementary, primitive" reaction against bourgeois socialism. Just as communist parties were to dominate the unions, so unions were to dominate (or absorb) the factory councils, subordinating workers' control of production to the larger struggle against capitalism or for the defense of the Soviet state.

In postwar Germany, council communists also briefly recharged the prewar federalist current of local craft groups against the centralizing trend of socialist or communist unionism. But German unions typically offered more social services than syndicalists welcomed, put off by the implied threats to personal liberties; and these unions still prized the political struggle above labor radicalism, even after the republic's birth. Likewise in Britain, the wartime shop-steward movement, based especially in Scotland's skilled machine trades, faded before the union constants of welfare services, electoralism, and mass recruitment. Britain's Trades Union Congress adopted some features of prewar industrial syndicalism, where "one big union" merged industrial or transport sectors and straddled barriers between the skilled and unskilled. These unions also avoided the rupture that elsewhere created a communist wing; Britain's Communist Party was formed not by schism but by the fusion of small preexisting groups. Yet despite large strikes, especially among coal miners, high unemployment kept a lid on labor militancy. The mostly nonviolent General Strike of 1926 ended in a truce and a wage cut, much to radicals' dismay.

Under these circumstances, syndicalism's post-1914 fate hinged less on the structural changes beloved by Marxist technological determinists than on social and political contingencies: not mass production or capitalist concentration but recession, political schism, dictatorial coups, and renewed war. If syndicalist habits of direct action and wildcat strikes (the old "revolutionary gymnastics") endured longer than material conditions might seem to justify, they long rivaled the party discipline that privileged political ends, such as anticolonialism or antifascism, both before and after World War II. French anarchosyndicalists may have spurned the Popular Front, but they celebrated the strikes and factory sit-ins that followed the electoral victory in May and June of 1936. That same spirit excited new bursts of syndicalist militancy in the period from 1945 to 1947 and in 1968.


Despite its huge toll in military and civilian casualties, World War II created far less social conflict than its predecessor, as both democracies and dictatorships secured mass support for national combat. Yet Vichy France was a special case, backed by many "national" syndicalists who had opposed the war, or championed appeasement, before 1939. These syndicalists also endorsed the regime's paternalist "Labor Charter" and its slogan that placed "Work" (although not mainly industrial work) alongside "Family" and "Country" as the highest social values. They further preferred collaboration with the Nazis to the political risks of the Resistance, with its large communist base, and to the social costs of mass production needed to win the war.

Indeed, many such views survived the Liberation, despite the change in circumstance, as grounds for syndicalist dissent from the communistled "battle for production." Against communist productivism, or the party's role in coalition governments, French anarchists and Trotskyists were avid strikers in 1945 through early 1947, before the Cold War brought new schisms on the left. Besnard's CGTSR joined with Spanish anarchists in exile to form a new CNT, based again on the direct action principles of the 1926 Lyon Charter. Spain's anarchists had also joined the Maquis in southwestern France and then supported the CNT in clandestine strikes in Spain in 1947 and 1951. But despite such militancy, it was the communist and Christian wings of the labor movement that saw the most postwar growth across Western Europe, due both to their prominence in the wartime Resistance and to the eventual rise of prosperity, consumerism, and welfare-state politics. Many syndicalists would then vest their revolutionary hopes in third-world peasants in lieu of Europe's bourgeois "new working class."

In the late 1960s, at the tail end of this prosperity surge, rose a new wave of protests that stressed qualitative issues of lifestyle as much as quantitative demands for economic concessions. University students took the lead in such strikes in France and elsewhere, while strikers in Italy posed issues of health, transport, lodging, and school, not just factory life. Although the economic reversals of the 1970s caused some of these currents to ebb, left-wing terrorism surged in both Germany and Italy, against union support for austerity policies and against the "historic compromise" by Italy's Communists and Christian Democrats in 1973. Eastern Europe's anti-Soviet protests also showed traces of what one might call "fin-de-siècle communitarian socialism" or "council democracy," all part of a broad anarchosyndicalist legacy. If purists deplored the eclecticism of these "new social movements," others hailed the proliferation of antiracist, antinuclear, pro-feminist and pro-ecology protests that spurned parliamentarianism for direct action or self-management (autogestion).

Since the 1970s, syndicalism is no longer the main site for anarchist activity, where the two strains were once nearly synonymous. In France, a group named for Bourses du travail founder Fernand Pelloutier (1867–1901) changed its newsletter's title from L'Anarcho-Syndicaliste to L'Anarcho (1973), thus letting the libertarian half of the group's hybrid identity trump the half rooted in the industrial age. Pelloutier's influence, renouncing the terrorist acts of an earlier day, had marked a step beyond romantic anarchism and toward syndicalist practicality. Is the movement now circling back to its origins, as the astronomer's term revolution suggests? Once reviled by Marxists as "pseudorevolutionary," anarchosyndicalism still privileges direct action over revolutionary politics, still prefers the élan of "active minorities" to the apathy of mass memberships, and scorns the electoral calculus by claiming a universal constituency beyond its small number of recruits. In the post-industrial era, the trade union is no longer the structural model for future society, nor work the central fact of human experience. Yet in the populist spirit of its forebears, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), anarchosyndicalism may now speak not just for a subset of workers but for all "the people," across lines of gender, race, and class.

See alsoAnarchism; Spanish Civil War.


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Kathryn E. Amdur