Anarchism and Anarchosyndicalism

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Anarchism and Anarchosyndicalism

Anarchism and anarchosyndicalism—ideologies that sought to replace existing political orders with a collective society based upon the needs of workers—were the most important currents to influence the labor movement from its origins to 1930. Early anarchists writing on various facets of Latin American societies were Rafael Barrett, Manuel González Prada, Ricardo Flores Magón, and Florencio Sánchez. Anarchists also undertook much of the early organizing and propaganda and acted as individuals. Anarchosyndicalism, which replaced anarchism as the most widely held position among workers, reached its maximum influence in the early twentieth century. By the 1930s, however, both ideologies lost ground, although a few adherents still existed. The appeal of anarchism, in particular, stemmed partly from the fact that small firms or artisanal shops dominated most manufacturing sectors. Pressured by the emergence of modern larger production units, artisans looked for ways to survive and better their lives. Later, anarchosyndicalism proved attractive as a means to combat the emerging capitalist economy that threatened to marginalize artisans and subordinate workers to industrial discipline with low wages. Countries where large groups of southern European immigrants lived tended to have stronger anarchist and anarchosyndicalist movements because many new arrivals (some fleeing persecution at home) carried these ideologies with them. Vibrant organizations that espoused one of these doctrines first emerged in Argentina, southern Brazil, and Uruguay.

Anarchism took both a collective and an individualistic form. It gathered strength in Mexico's highly artisanal economy after 1860. Before 1900, immigrant members of the First International, based in Europe, founded short-lived sections in several large Latin American cities. By 1900, however, anarchism in some forms had appeared almost everywhere in Latin America. Anarchists differed concerning which strategies and tactics to pursue. Many saw trade unions as inherently reformist and chose to work through small affinity groups to win workers and others to the cause. Anarchists agreed that they should build a revolutionary movement to destroy the state and create a new society, but they often disagreed upon its shape. Independent artisans tended to favor a society composed of small producers, each governing a particular area of production. Occasionally anarchists joined unions just to recruit people. Some workers practiced "propaganda by the deed" and perpetrated individualist acts, such as the killing of Buenos Aires's police chief in 1909 for his role in the massacre of workers on May Day that year. Proletarian violence in the face of bourgeois violence, anarchists argued, justified such deeds.

Anarchosyndicalism played an even larger role in Latin America, but differences emerged among its followers. Its main objective was to adapt anarchist principles to the conditions of an emerging industrial capitalism. It spread rapidly, and after 1900 organizations pledged to it formed wherever a labor movement existed. Both a revolutionary and proletarian doctrine, anarchosyndicalism attempted to overcome the ineffectiveness of anarchist practice. Although theory and practice varied considerably over space and time, direct action formed one central feature. Workers relied on strikes, sabotage, or boycotts rather than gains through the institutions of the capitalist state. The proletariat was not to participate in political parties because voting just legitimized the system. Anarchosyndicalists undertook to destroy the state, not to control or reform it. Trade unions could act as vehicles of struggle and as the nucleus of the new society, which some envisioned as a free association of free producers gathered into unions that would govern through a large federation. Even union organization created controversy. Some saw unions as minorities of militants and argued against enrolling everyone regardless of whether or not they identified as working class or saw employers as the enemy. Others warned that union bureaucracies weakened revolutionary militancy, and they opposed paid officials, permanent staff, or strike funds. In general, anarchosyndicalists turned to organizing on an industrial rather than craft basis (anarchists generally favored the latter). These groups would join local, provincial, national, regional, and eventually international federations. National groupings formed in several countries, and continental conferences met, uniting workers in given trades and in these federations. All persuasions of anarchists maintained extensive international contacts. Members of the U.S. anarchosyndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, for example, founded branches in Chile after 1910.

Anarchosyndicalists sought to destroy the state through the revolutionary general strike, which either became an armed confrontation of the masses against the forces of repression representing capital or else took place peacefully when all workers dropped their tools and walked away from their jobs. In theory they discredited strikes for limited objectives, but in practice supported them because they believed that understanding came through struggle. In reality, most anarchosyndicalist unions negotiated with the state, although some did not. Both anarchists and anarchosyndicalists published newspapers, edited books, and ran cultural programs for workers and their families, offering an alternative lifestyle. The strongest anarchosyndicalist organizations emerged in Argentina and Brazil, but they also exercised influence over workers and the labor movement through at least the 1920s in Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and elsewhere. The widespread failure of revolutionary general strikes eventually led workers to follow less radical strategies and seek limited gains.

The appearance of Communist parties after 1917 and the growing strength of syndicalism doomed both anarchist currents either to disappear as an important force or else to play a decidedly secondary role. The last great movements in which anarchosyndicalists played a leading part occurred around World War I. The defeats suffered in the São Paulo (1917) and Montevideo (1919) general strikes, for example, helped discredit anarchosyndicalism, as did the severe repression after the Semana Trágica (1919) in Argentina. Nevertheless, in the 1920s anarchosyndicalist unions still proved influential in Bolivia and Ecuador, in the broad social movement that overthrew the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado in 1933 and in rural strikes in the Argentine Chaco and Patagonia. After 1930 anarchism and anarchosyndicalism declined as significant forces. There remained, however, individual workers and specific unions that still espoused each of them. Gradual economic development doomed these doctrines, which once spoke to the needs of workers and artisans caught in the initial stages of capitalist development.

See alsoBaralt, Rafael María; Flores Magón, Ricardo; González Prada, Manuel; Sánchez, Florencio.


General overviews of the early period of the Latin American labor movement are found in Hobart A. Spalding, Organized Labor in Latin America (1977), chaps. 1 and 2, and Michael Hall and Hobart A. Spalding, "The Urban Working Class and Early Latin American Labour Movements, 1880–1930," in The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 4, edited by Leslie Bethell (1986), reprinted as "Urban Labor Movements" in Latin America: Economy and Society, 1870–1930, edited by Leslie Bethell (1989) (see especially the bibliography, which surveys the field). Among the leading country studies of anarchism and anarchosyndicalism are John W. F. Dulles, Anarchists and Communists in Brazil, 1900–1935 (1973); Angel Quintero Rivera, Workers' Struggle in Puerto Rico: A Documentary History (1976); Guillermo Lora, A History of the Bolivian Labour Movement, 1848–1971, translated by Christine Whitehead, edited and abridged by Laurence Whitehead (1977); John M. Hart, Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860–1931 (1978); Jacov Oved, El anarguismo y el movimiento obrero en Argentina (1978); Peter Blanchard, The Origins of the Peruvian Labor Movement, 1883–1919 (1982); and Peter De Shazo, Urban Workers and Labor Unions in Chile, 1902–1927 (1983).

Additional Bibliography

Alves, Paulo. Anarquismo e anarcosindicalismo: Teoria e prática no movimento operário brasileiro, 1906–1922. Curitiba, Brazil: Aos Quatro Ventos, 2002.

Benyo, Javier. La alianza obrera Spartacus: Anarquismo, vanguardia obrera e institucionalización del movimiento sindical en la década de 1930. Buenos Aires: Libros de Anarres, 2005.

Rama, Carlos M., and Angel J. Cappelletti, eds. El Anarquismo en América Latina. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1990.

Robles Gómez, Jorge, and Luís Ángel Gómez. De la autonomía al corporativismo: Memoria cronológica del movimiento obrero en México, 1900–1980. Mexico City: El Atajo Ediciones, 1995.

Shaffer, Kirwin R. Anarchism and Countercultural Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Cuba. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

Suriano, Juan. Anarquistas: Cultura y política libertaria en Buenos Aires, 1890–1910. Buenos Aires: Manantial, 2001.

Toledo, Edilene. Anarquismo e sindicalismo revolucionário: Trabalhadores e militantes em São Paulo na Primeira República. São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2004.

Ward, Thomas. La anarquía inmanentista de Manuel González Prada. Lima: Universidad Ricardo Palma/Editorial Horizonte, 2001.

                              Hobart A. Spalding