Syndicalist Movement

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Syndicalist Movement

Worldwide 1890s-1920s


Between the 1890s and the 1920s, a distinctive group of social movements known variously as revolutionary syndicalist, anarcho-syndicalist, and industrial unionist developed in many parts of Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Australia. However, in juxtaposition to the craft unionism prevalent in the United States and England, syndicalism was a form of labor unionism that aimed to overthrown capitalism through revolutionary, industrial class struggle and to build a social order free from economic or political oppression. Unlike most socialists who organized workers' parties, the syndicalists concentrated on organizing the working class through unions. Unions served a dual function, acting both as the organizers of class warfare and as the nuclei of the postrevolutionary society. The emancipation of the working class was to be achieved by direct action and the general strike, not by parliamentary pressure or political insurrection designed to lead to state socialism; the aim was control of both the economy and society by workers.

It is far beyond the scope of this entry to explicate every regional and ideological tendency of the syndicalist movement. Rather, emphasis is placed on events in France, as it is the birthplace of both syndicalism and the movement's ideological forefather, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. However, it is worth noting that in the United States the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or "Wobblies" were established in 1905; the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), in 1910; and the Italian Unione Sindacale Italiana, in 1912.

In 1922 the syndicalists set up their own International Workingmen's Association based in Berlin. When the International was established, the Unione Sindacale Italiana had 500,000 members; the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina, 200,000 members; the Portuguese Confederaçã o General dos Trabalhadores, 150,000 members; and the German Freie Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands, 120,000 members. There were smaller organizations in Chile, Uruguay, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Mexico, and Sweden.

In this entry the term "syndicalism" will be substituted for what is more accurately termed "revolutionary syndicalism." The word syndicat is the French equivalent of the English trade union, while revolutionary syndicalism explicitly means transferring control of production to workers' unions and abolishing formal government by means of a revolutionary general strike. While the latter is a more precise term, the former will be used for the sake of succinctness.


  • 1881: U.S. President James A. Garfield is assassinated in a Washington, D.C., railway station by Charles J. Guiteau.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1890: Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and historian, publishes The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which demonstrates the decisive role that maritime forces have played in past conflicts. The book will have an enormous impact on world events by encouraging the major powers to develop powerful navies.
  • 1894: War breaks out between Japan and China. It will end with China's defeat the next year, marking yet another milestone in China's decline and Japan's rise.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium. Its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1899: Polish-born German socialist Rosa Luxemburg rejects the argument that working conditions in Europe have improved, and that change must come by reforming the existing system. Rather, she calls for an overthrow of the existing power structure by means of violent international revolution.
  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1904: Beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, which lasts into 1905 and results in a resounding Japanese victory. In Russia, the war is followed by the Revolution of 1905, which marks the beginning of the end of czarist rule; meanwhile, Japan is poised to become the first major non-western power of modern times.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1908: The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Danbury Hatters' case, rules that secondary union boycotts (i.e., boycotts of nonunion manufacturers' products, organized by a union) are unlawful.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in Sã o Toméand Principe.
  • 1918: Upheaval sweeps Germany, which for a few weeks in late 1918 and early 1919 seems poised on the verge of communist revolution—or at least a Russian-style communist coup d'etat. But reactionary forces have regained their strength, and the newly organized Freikorps (composed of unemployed soldiers) suppresses the revolts. Even stronger than reaction or revolution, however, is republican sentiment, which opens the way for the creation of a democratic government based at Weimar.

Event and Its Context

Historical Beginnings of Syndicalism in France

A brief historical overview tracing the contributing factors to the development of French syndicalism within the context of the larger working-class movement is useful to understanding the movement as it took shape at the dawn of the twentieth century. The compagnonnages of journeymen dated from the fifteenth century and were organized around a guild structure. They also directed strikes and boycotts in defense of their economic interests. When all citizens were given the right to combine freely in 1790, workers quickly took advantage of the law by organizing trade unions. After a plethora of strikes, the government passed the Le Chapelier law in 1791, forbidding all combinations for the purpose of changing existing labor conditions. Workers responded by forming underground sociétés de résistance. Following decades of successive foment and repression, including the revolution of 1848, the right to form unions and strike was restored by Napoleon III (1808-1873), who ruled France as emperor from 1852 to 1871. Chambres Syndicats Ouvriéres, later known as syndicats, were formed in bakeries, print shops, and newer occupations, including metallurgy.

Beginning with the French Revolution of 1789, some agitators had urged revolution for its own sake, without great concern for what would come next. Adolphe Blanqui was the leading advocate of this approach during much of the nineteenth century; from the Blanquist tradition came many syndicalist leaders, notably Victor Griffuelhes, the head of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), the primary organization of the syndicalists in France, during the early twentieth century. Finally, by about 1900, syndicalism benefited from an influx of revolutionary anarchist leaders; disenchanted with the failures of anarchism's tactic of "propaganda by the deed," they began to advocate less violent forms of resistance, primarily the general strike.

Proudhon and the Intellectual Foundation of Syndicalism

The most significant intellectual forerunner of syndicalism was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the artisan who made France's greatest contribution to socialist thought. Proudhon's thinking dominated French labor movements in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and he was in many ways syndicalism's logical precursor.

French workers participated in the creation of the International Workingmen's Association, which came to be known as the First International, in London in 1864. The bulk of delegates from the French section, eventually the largest national section in the First International, were Proudhonists who supported workers' activity in the economic realm through the formation of unions, cooperatives, and mutual banks, rather than party activity. As anarchists, they placed great emphasis on spontaneous action, voluntarism, federalism, and ouvrierisme (control of the class struggle without the aid of intellectuals). This placed the syndicalists in direct opposition to the Marxist program of nationalization of industry, electoral activity, and the centralization of both the First International and the state.

At the Basel Congress of 1869, a Proudhonian delegate advocated the concentration of the energies of the First International upon the formation of unions, or syndicats. First, he noted, "they are the means of resisting exploitation in the present," and secondly, "the groupings of different trades in the city will form the commune of the future." Once this commune was formed, "the government will be replaced by federated councils of syndicats, and by a committee of their respective delegates regulating the relation of labor—this taking the place of politics."

Appeal of Syndicalism to Diverse Groups

The intellectual underpinnings of syndicalism meant that the movement stemmed from and had particular appeal for a number of key groups. The groups can be defined in different though somewhat overlapping ways. Syndicalism attracted many workers raised in a trade-union tradition. Union traditions in this period were strengthened by Proudhonism, which distrusted political methods. Part of syndicalism, then, was a pure and simple trade unionism, with all means of production in the hands of the workers themselves.

The syndicalist approach also had special appeal to craftsmen. Artisans like printers and carpenters had the longest tradeunion traditions in France. The syndicalist stress on local organization and producers' control of their own work appealed to even older artisanal traditions; vaguely and in obviously radical language, syndicalism seemed to suggest something like a restoration of idealized guilds. Emphasis on small size and participant control of economic organization in the interests of economic justice and equality certainly recalled the guild tradition; Proudhon's thought had intellectualized this artisanal heritage.

Syndicalism had particular resonance to workers in Paris, partly because of the city's unusually intense revolutionary tradition, which included, in the glorification of the Paris Commune of 1871, hostility to the whole apparatus of central government and vigorous attachment to the Jacobin notion of direct democracy. Furthermore, the professions most open to syndicalism, notably the building trades, were, on the whole, the same as those that had provided the bulk of the men who manned the barricades in 1830 and 1848. These sources gave the movement real strength.

Social, Political, and Economic Factors Encourage Development of Syndicalism

The massacre of about 20,000 Communards during the French government's destruction of the Paris Commune in May 1871 completely changed the nature of the working-class movement and socialism. Government repression of the Commune destroyed confidence in the Proudhonist notion, dear to many workers, that emancipation would occur through peaceful evolution. Also, the Commune threw the nascent syndicalist movement into a temporary eclipse. With most of the French militants either dead or in exile, unionism was forced into a period of moderation.

In addition to these social and political factors, there were also economic circumstances that pushed French workers towards syndicalism. First, unusual radicalism was induced by unusual economic hardship in this period; and second, radicalism took a syndicalist form because of the peculiar artisanal structure of French manufacturing.

France was less completely industrialized than either Germany or Britain, and her firms were smaller. This structure in turn encouraged a labor movement whose organization and goals were both highly decentralized. Workers could not easily establish a tightly organized union movement because factories were small and dispersed, and tight organization was unnecessary because their employers too, were individualistic and weakly organized. Finally, large numbers of workers were artisans and sought a movement that would express their hopes for a local, producer-controlled economy. French artisans faced something of a crisis at the end of the nineteenth century, aside from specific developments in wages or levels of employment. Mechanization spread to almost all trades, often for the first time. At the same time, the size of companies in the traditional trades increased.

Development of the Bourses du Travail There were also legal factors to consider. Syndicalism began to emerge in the 1880s after passage of the Waldeck-Rousseau Law (1884) legislated the right of workers to associate. Because of the defeat of the Commune in 1871 and subsequent repression, French labor movements of all sorts had ground to a halt in the 1870s. The trade unions that existed before the 1884 law were mainly local, isolated, and rather conservative. Then, with the possibilities that the 1884 law afforded, the first important associations of unions arose on a local basis. That is, unions from various professions, like printing and baking, grouped in a citywide federation, a bourse du travail ("trades council"); national federations in the same profession followed more slowly. The bourse du travail movement, which federated very loosely at the national level in the 1890s, both reflected and furthered a syndicalist tendency. In 1892 a national confederation of bourses du travail was formed, and by 1895 the anarchists, led by Fernand Pelloutier and Émile Pouget, had acquired positions of leadership.

As with the compagnonnages, the bourses served as employment offices and fraternal organizations, providing temporary and migrant workers with clean beds, baths, and food. They were also cultural centers in that they compiled libraries and offered vocational classes for the local unions. In addition, the bourses quickly became the chief center for organizing trade unions. These unions were usually affiliated by profession. Under the sheltering umbrella of the local bourses, however, the unions tended to take on a more regional characteristic, organizing into a federation, with the federations subsequently forming into the Fédération des Bourses du Travail (FBT).

The head of the bourse du travail movement, Fernand Pelloutier, was the first real articulator of syndicalist ideas. In the late 1890s, the FBT set up a general strike committee. (Even earlier, in the late 1880s, general labor congresses had accepted the idea of a general strike to destroy capitalist society.) The bourse du travail movement ebbed after 1900 and soon merged with the CGT, which had begun in 1895. There were numerous splits in the revolutionary workers' movement between advocates of the general strike and their opponents.

But the CGT, though organized mainly on the basis of national industrial unions, had itself been captured by syndicalism. The statutes of the CGT in 1903 included an effective if somewhat muted declaration of syndicalism: "[The CGT] assembles, outside of any political tendency, all workers who are conscious of the struggle necessary for the disappearance of wage work and the employer class."

Merger of the FBT and the CGT

Although the FBT was a strong organization, particularly under Pelloutier's leadership, another organization ultimately came to absorb it. With all the factions still jockeying for control, another national congress was convened in 1895. Included in the delegations were bourse leaders, those who supported the general strike, and militants from the radical Parti Ouvrier Socialiste Révolutionaire (PSOR). The time had come, delegates agreed, to organize a stronger national committee in order to coordinate labor activities. The new organization was named Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). Its task was to serve as a kind of clearinghouse of labor activity between syndicats andbourses on the local, regional, and national levels.

The CGT was housed in Paris but held congresses in various parts of the country. Delegates to the administrative council and to the congresses were to be elected by the individual organizations. The duties of0the national council were to carry out propaganda and coordinate strikes. More importantly, every bourse, local union, and trade federation adhering to the CGT, regardless of the number of members in its organization, had one vote. So, by 1900 syndicalism attracted many French workers, and for a variety of reasons. The suppression of the Commune had embittered many workers and proved to them that the republican government was bourgeois and repressive. Long after the 1870s it was easy to see the government in this role. The French government, for all its commitment to political radicalism, was harsher and less sympathetic to workers than most other European states.

Partly because of the sense that politics had deceived them, French workers were suspicious of other political remedies. They were further disillusioned by French socialism as exemplified by Jules Guesde and the Parti Ouvrier Socialiste, which was authoritarian and inflexible. Its Marxist doctrine emphasized disciplined organization and a general disdain of strikes that displeased many French workers. In rebellion against Guesdist control of labor congresses and their increasing efforts to take over the union movement, French workers began introducing resolutions for a general strike in the 1880s. The CGT was formed when a general strike resolution in 1894 led to the collapse of the Guesdist Fédération Nationale du Syndicats. All of this activity simply widened the breach with socialism, for the Guesdists did not believe that strikes, whether general or partial, could have any significant success.

The syndicalist movement waned in numbers and influence following World War I. Despite its philosophical opposition to Marxism, the Soviet interpretation of communism lured many syndicalists toward that camp. The material advances being obtained by trade unionism in western European countries outside of France also tended to attract French workers. Some aspects of syndicalist thought still influence contemporary anarchists. Even the richest and most stable governments falter in their resolve to ameliorate long-term social problems, assuring that syndicalist and anarchist thought will retain its attraction for workers and citizens concerned with these issues.

Key Players

Griffuelhes, (Jean) Victor (1874-1922): Griffuelhes was aCGT organizer who supported a shift in the union from craft unionism to industrial unionism. He was also union secretary and coauthor of the Charter of Amiens that made syndicalism the official doctrine of the CGT. His reputation was undermined due to allegations that he misappropriated union funds.

Pelloutier, Fernand (1867-1901): As a young journalist, Pelloutier moved from republicanism to socialism but left the Parti Ouvrier Français after the Guesdists rejected the general strike. Widely regarded as the father of anarchosyndicalism, he wrote numerous articles in Les temps nouveaux from 1895 to 1901 and was founder and editor of L'ouvrier des deux mondes. He authored L'organisation corporative et l'anarchie and Histoire des bourses du travail: origine—institutions—avenir, which was published posthumously.

Pouget, Jean-Joseph Émile (1860-1931): Anarchist, antimilitarist, and editor. On 8 March 1883 he led a series of attacks on three bakeries with the Communard Louise Michel during a demonstration of the Parisian Unemployed. He was editor of Le pè re peinard and La sociale. An organizer of the textile employees union, he became a leading member of the CGT in 1895. In 1900 he founded the CGT publishing organ, La voix du peuple, with Fernand Pelloutier.Major works include Gréve générale réformiste et gréve générale révolutionaire, and Comment nous ferons la revolution with Emile Pataud.

Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1809-1865): Proudhon was an editor of Le représentant du peuple, its successor Le peuple, and La voix du peuple. He was a social theorist regarded by many as the father of anarchism. His widely read pamphlet, What Is Property? condemned the abuses of private property and embraced anarchism. After the revolution of 1848, he was elected a member of the constituent assembly and unsuccessfully attempted to establish a national bank for reorganization of credit in the interest of the workers. Proudhon left a great mass of literature that influenced the French syndicalist movement. His most important books include System of Economic Contradictions; or The Philosophy of Poverty and De la justice dans la révolution et dans l'église (Of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church). Proudhon was also a contemporary of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin. In 1846 he took issue with Marx over the organization of the socialist movement, objecting to Marx's authoritarian and centralist ideas. Shortly afterward, when Proudhon published his Systè me des contradictions économiques, ou philosophie de la misè re (System of Economic Contradictions: or, The Philosophy of Poverty), Marx attacked him bitterly in a book-length polemic, La misè re de la philosophie.

Sorel, Georges (1847-1922): An engineer, social philosopher, and writer, Sorel was one of the primary exponents of revolutionary syndicalism. His best-known work, Réflexions sue la violence, became an exemplary text of syndicalism. His ideological commitments were disparate, ranging from support for French monarchism to the Bolshevik Revolution.

See also: Confédération Générale du Travail; First International; Industrial Workers of the World; Paris Commune.



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—Evan Daniel