views updated Jun 11 2018




Syndicalism is a philosophy and a style of revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary labor-union action that first took shape in the French unions of the last decade of the nineteenth century. The philosophy was further elaborated in the writings of Georges Sorel and other intellectuals. For about a generation it played a significant role in France, Italy, Spain, and other countries as the most spectacular labor protest against the industrial order, against the central state, and against the increasing tendency of socialism to make its peace with the existing political order.

The term comes from the French syndicat, a group for the defense of common interests. A labor union is a syndicat ouvrier, or simply a syndicat. In French, syndicalisme is labor unionism in general. But the term was taken over in English to mean specifically the revolutionary unionism which the French call syndicalisme révolutionnaire, or anarcho-syndicalisme. Similarly the French took from English the term trade-unionisme to designate English-style reformist unionism.

The word syndicalism, with or without accompanying adjectives, has been harnessed to a wide variety of uses, some metaphorical and some polemic. Some writers have used it to identify systems of occupational or other group organization, voluntary or state-directed; others, to label general theories of political and juridical pluralism. For still others, it has served to stigmatize an abuse of bargaining power by labor or other sectional interests at the expense of the general interest. These connotations are not those of the historical core of syndicalism.

Antecedents . As the syndicalist outlook developed first in the French unions, it combined many of the ideas current among radical groups of the nineteenth century. Proudhon was the strongest intellectual influence among the elite of French workingmen. From him and the Proudhonists of the First International, the syndicalists took their belief in the self-governing workshop as the unit of a free and decentralized society, their stress on the workers’ own efforts as the means of the workers’ emancipation, and their distrust of coercive state authority. From the Marxists, they took their emphasis on the class struggle as a principle of explanation and as a guide to action. From the French revolutionary tradition, as well as from the Blanquists and from the Bakuninists of the First International, they acquired their acceptance of violence and their stress on the role of a militant elite in the process of social emancipation. From the Paris Commune came further justification for revolt against the centralizing state. The method of the general strike, peaceful or revolutionary, had been in the air since Owenites and Chartists had preached it in Britain in the 1830s, and the First International had revived it. The anarchists who joined the French unions in large numbers in the 1890s brought a new infusion of Proudhonian and Bakuninist ideas and contributed the ideas of opposition to political action in general and to the socialist parties in particular.

Basic concepts . The concepts which were crucial to the syndicalist outlook were these: The class war is the dominant characteristic of modern society and the method of social change; the working class must achieve its own liberation from employer authority, the wage system, and the oppressive state; the workers must not rely on political action. The antithesis of party compromise and parliamentary betrayal was the workers’ direct action. This might take many forms of pressure on employers or government: boycott, sabotage (much discussed but little used), mass demonstration, or strikes. All strikes, won or lost, help deepen workers’ class consciousness. Any one of them may lead to the supreme form of direct action, the revolutionary general strike.

In the unions, central authority and the power of elected and appointed officials must be kept to a minimum, for they dull the revolutionary spirit. The general strike will come not from the action of powerful, rich unions but from the will of a conscious militant minority galvanizing the torpid mass of workers into a “sudden leap of awareness.” That elite is the driving force in history. The workers, isolated in the nation by social injustice, have no fatherland but that of class, that of the international proletariat. The unions must oppose nationalism and militarism. The labor union, organ of struggle against capitalism, will in the future be “an organization for production and distribution” and “the basis of social reorganization.” Functional organization and economic representation, in a pluralistic society based on free consensus, will replace the oppressive political state.

Unlike Marxian socialism, syndicalism was not interested in the conquest of the state by political party activity. It attempted no serious analysis of the historical process. Nor did it count on historical determinism to realize its ends.

Unlike anarchism, syndicalism relied on the occupational group and the class rather than the individual. It accepted a degree of organization which alarmed “pure” anarchists. The organization, the union, had tasks of immediate amelioration as well as of final social emancipation. The union, rather than the libertarian commune, was to be the nucleus of the freely federated society of the future.

French syndicalism . Syndicalism in France reflected the failure to develop satisfactory organic or working relationships between socialist parties and the labor unions. In the 1880s and 1890s the still-weak unions were being torn apart by rival socialist parties—five “national parties” by the late 1890s—fighting for union support. Political neutrality was a doctrine of self-protection for the unions. Syndicalist ideas also reflected the state of the unions. Emphasis on the role of active minorities and the unpredictable general strike idealized the conditions of unions without mass membership, financial resources, or central authority, and without collective bargaining rights against hostile employers.

The French unions before 1914 were divided more or less evenly between reformists and revolutionists. But the revolutionary views prevailed as the official doctrine of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) well before they were proclaimed by Sorel. They were implicit in union structure, practices, and pronouncements and explicit in the writings of a remarkable elite of union activists, mostly self-taught intellectuals: Émile Pouget, Victor Griffuelhes, Georges Yvetot, Paul Delesalle, Pierre Monatte, Alphonse Merrheim, Leon Jouhaux, and earliest and foremost, Fernand Pelloutier.

Pelloutier was a personal link with the theorists outside the unions, for he was a friend of Sorel’s. As it is easier for outsiders to read books than to study union documents and practices, it is through Sorel and his followers that most people know syndicalism. Werner Sombart’s convenient explanation that Sorel had produced the theory of syndicalism has survived all the disclaimers of Sorel and his followers.

These disclaimers did not arise from false modesty. The syndicalist ideas had already made their way in the unions at a time when Sorel was still a revisionist socialist. In 1898 he first published the articles collected as “L’avenir socialiste des syndi-cats.” Here he found his model not in the syndicalist French unions, about which he was silent, but in the strong, disciplined, reformist English trade unions. Here he praised cooperatives but not the general strike.

Even after Sorel embraced syndicalism, he had little influence on the course of labor thinking or behavior in France. He had two important followers in his syndicalist phase. Edouard Berth elaborated on his anti-intellectual themes and followed his master’s course from syndicalism to royalist, anti-Semitic nationalism. Hubert Lagar-delle was a more coherent expositor of syndicalism than Sorel, more realistic and constructive, less bitterly and unjustly polemic. Unlike Sorel, he had close contacts with the union movement, and he was active in the Socialist party. He gave to the labor movement that devoted service which Sorel and Berth preached as the intellectual’s function. As editor of the Mouvement socialists from 1899 to 1914, he made it a distinguished international review that published many of the most interesting discussions of practice and theory by syndicalist activists and theoreticians. Lagardelle refused to follow the more original Sorel into the royalist camp and regarded as “monstrous” his mentor’s attempt to couple syndicalism with reactionary monarchism.

The unionists did not share Sorel’s pessimistic view of the world; they were optimistic in that expectation of an imminent social revolution which was part of the radical mood of the generation before 1914. The unionists denounced socialist intellectuals for their party politics, but they did not make a cult of anti-intellectualism and antirational-ism, as did Sorel and Berth.

The unionists often seemed to urge direct action for its own sake, but they did not urge violence for its own sake, as did the intellectuals. The general strike was for the intellectuals a great social myth. But the union people saw it as a real tactic for pragmatic purposes.

Even their modest gains in organizational strength were enough to close the “heroic period” of the syndicalist unions, and on the eve of World War i they were moving toward reformism. When in 1914 their members marched off to war without a protest from the Confederation, the foundations of syndicalist dogma and practice collapsed. Syndicalist union leaders cooperated with the French government and the Socialist party. Their share in wartime economic direction and in factory representation gave them a new appreciation of the role of the state, of the problems of political power, and of the complexities of the economy. But for another generation after the war most of them continued to pay verbal tribute to old syndicalist slogans, to the confusion of their followers. The communists entered into this heritage of extremist temperament. A handful of faithful “pure syndicalists” guarded a small, independent source of revolutionary ardor, if no longer of expectation.

Italian syndicalism . The ideas and organizational forms of the French greatly influenced the Italians. Sorel was far more popular and influential in Italy than in his own land. But the syndicalists never gained a preponderant position in the General Confederation of Labor (CGL), and they withdrew from it to found their own, much smaller union central., Italian syndicalists took a more flexible view of political action than the French, working for a time in the Socialist party and even sitting in the parliament. Arturo (not to be confused with Antonio) Labriola, the most interesting of the theorists, argued that it would be idiotic to ignore the fact of parliamentary politics. Even a revolutionary party had to make use of existing institutions as a condition of its existence.

Labriola analyzed some of the phenomena which in Italy held back class consciousness and created networks of common interests between proletarians and bourgeois—notably the great number of social groups between the extremes of class identification and the traditional, exclusivist regional feelings. Sorel never attempted this sort of realistic analysis.

The syndicalist vision of workers’ control seemed for a moment almost a reality in the wave of Italian factory occupations in 1920. But these futile occupations were not the work of the syndicalists, whose unions had by then declined to impotence.

Spanish syndicalism . In Spain the syndicalist current merged with the much older anarchist stream to create the strongest and the most militant syndicalist union center to function anywhere, one which endured after syndicalism everywhere else had spent its force. The National Confederation of Labor (CNT) had its chief center in Barcelona, where it drew strength from Catalan resistance to Castilian centralization in the state and in the Socialist party and from resentment with management intransigence and weak governmental protection of workers.

The CNT stressed spontaneity, local autonomy, ’libertarian communism,” freedom from bureaucracy in structure, and hostility to state, employers, and church in action, far more than even the French or Italian unions. It carried class warfare and local and regional general strikes to a heroic pitch but almost always to defeat, in intermittent, bloody uprisings. In its third and last decade of effective existence, after 1927, the CNT was controlled by the secret organization of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), which reaffirmed a violent intransigence against those CNT leaders who advanced more realistic, moderate methods than their own.

In 1936 the CNT militia helped save the republican regime from the first shocks of the Franco revolt. To save the republic, CNT leaders joined first the Catalan government and then the national government of Largo Caballero, showing the world the novelty of anarchosyndicalist cabinet ministers. In Catalonia, when the Civil War began, the CNT took over and ran many factories in the most significant attempt ever made to put syndicalist ideas into practice. These activities were stifled when, in May 1937, government and communist armed forces reduced the CNT center of power in Barcelona. Franco’s victory confirmed the tragic fate of a movement which had discovered the reality of politics too late for its own or the republic’s survival.

Syndicalism in other countries . From Spain and Portugal, Italy and France, syndicalism had spread to Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. For the first two decades of this century it constituted the major current in the new labor movements of a number of these nations. In almost all of them the syndicalists were reduced to impotence by the early 1920s, and the downfall of Spanish anarchosyndicalism ended what influence they had retained.

Syndicalist ideas played a role in the labor movements of a number of other countries. They were a major current in the Dutch unions just before and after the turn of the century, represented by the interesting, theoretically oriented leader, Christian Cornelissen. In the disciplined German union movement, syndicalism was a significant though minor current that drew the support of Robert Michels.

In the United States an indigenous syndicalism appeared in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). This most colorful and radical of American labor organizations began in 1905 with a recognition of the possibility of independent working-class politics but by 1908 came under the control of the opponents of political action. The “Wobblies,” as IWW members were called, were activists to the core, rough in language, and little interested in theory. Proposing the revolutionary expropriation of the propertied classes and the abolition of the wage system, they advanced a crude theory of the social organization of the future by industrial unions.

The IWW fought for better working conditions for some of the most exploited workers in America —the unskilled, migratory, and often homeless workers of the Pacific slope and the foreign factory workers in Eastern cities—but it generally refused the discipline of collective bargaining. It defied all authority—of employers and government, of public opinion (often molded by employer propaganda), and of the mainstream of organized labor.

Taking seriously its rejection of all wars but the class war, the IWW paid dearly for its opposition to American involvement in World War I. The leadership was decimated, and the organization was shattered by government prosecutions and harassment and by government-abetted vigilante actions. A hopelessly impractical organizational structure, internal dissensions, and the competing, new appeal of communism to revolutionaries completed the downfall in the 1920s of an organization which had carried antiauthoritarianism and worker exclusivism to fatal extremes.

Norway was the one northern European country in which a group strongly influenced by syndicalism was for a time dominant in a mass labor movement. That group was the “Trade Union Opposition of 1911,” led by the talented Martin Tranmael, who had worked in the United States and had been impressed by the IWW. Although it favored sabotage and other forms of “direct action,” the “Opposition of 1911” worked effectively with the left wing of the Labor party. When it won out in the Norwegian labor movement, it did not attempt revolutionary political or industrial action. Tranmael himself, elected general secretary of the Labor party in 1918, was the most influential leader in the Norwegian labor movement between the wars.

In Sweden a small syndicalist labor federation, which split from the main trade-union movement in 1910, remained active into the 1960s. Although its behavior differed little from the practice of other unions then, its publication was an outlet for interesting dissident comments on Swedish society. The federation loyally maintained the vestiges of the once significant anarchosyndicalist International Workingmen’s Association, founded in 1922.

Russia seemed to be in the process of a partially syndicalist upheaval after the February Revolution. Workers seized factories and operated them through factory committees, soviets, and trade unions; Lenin for a time found it politic to endorse “workers’ control.” Abroad these developments helped to foster the idea of a “workers’ revolution” in Russia and to win for communism the support of old-time syndicalists. After several years of feverish debate on workers’ control, the Bolsheviks managed to put a stop to what Lenin called “syndicalist twaddle.” With the defeat of the Workers’ Opposition group, branded as “anarchosyndicalist” by its opponents, the state asserted its full control over the economy, and the party its control over the unions. Defeated in Russia, the idea of workers’ control was to reappear in the Yugoslav works councils and the revived works council movement in many countries after World War n.

In the labor unrest which shook Britain in the years just before 1914, the word syndicalism was much bruited about. There was something of the syndicalist spirit in the heightened class consciousness and militant strike action of certain groups of industrial workers, notably the miners. The militancy reappeared after the first few years of war in the protest movements led by local shop stewards and in demands for workers’ control. Syndicalist concepts influenced the British guild socialists, many of them middle class, who stressed the role of unions or “national guilds” of producers as administrative agencies of the cooperative commonwealth. But the guild socialists’ temper was rational and moderate, and they left to a democratized, pluralistic government an essential role in their complex utopia.

Evaluation . Syndicalism claims our attention less as a constructive political and economic doctrine than as a trenchant ethical criticism of institutions and as a libertarian way of facing authority. It related widespread labor exploitation and unrest to a romantic notion of the autonomy and the primacy of the working class. But its demands for workers’ control were based on excessively optimistic concepts of workers’ psychology, and its vision of economic organization was rudimentary and quixotic.

Its critique of the modern state and of liberal democracy and its stress upon functional association helped to stimulate pluralist speculation. But, although the syndicalists were not altogether economic determinists, they carried the overemphasis on economic factors, which prevailed in the late nineteenth century, in many ways even further than did the Marxists. Their stress upon the “apolitical” character of their own action arose from an oversimplified view of societal processes which obscured the political nature both of their goal—total revolutionary change—and of their method—the general strike.

The syndicalist assertion of the need for spontaneity within the workers’ organization threw new light on the comparative moderation, smugness, and bureaucratization already setting in among the socialist parties and reformist trade unions. The syndicalist language of extremism flashed warnings of the strange interplay of the rational and the irrational and of the latent sources of violence in social behavior—among intellectuals as well as among manual workers.

The refusal of most syndicalists to recognize the reality and legitimacy of political action left many of them in France and Italy unable to distinguish between democratic politics and the claims of a totalitarian party and the authoritarian state. Other, far more brutal movements put into practice the much bruited about. There was something of the violence that the syndicalists had advocated or condoned and their rather mystical view of elite leadership but sacrificed all of the syndicalists’ ethical concerns and their generous solidarity.

Val R. Lorwin

[See also ANARCHISM;Labor Unions. Other relevant material will be found in Marxism;Socialism; and in the biography of Sorel


Griffuelhes, Victor 1908 L’action syndicalists. Paris: Rivierè.

Jouhaux, Leon 1920 Le syndicalisme et la C.G.T. Paris: La Sirène.

Labriola, Arturo; Michels, Robert et al. 1908 Syndicalisme & socialisms. Paris: Rivierè.

Lagardelle, Hubert 1911 Le socialisms ouvrier. Paris: Giard et Briére.

Peirats, JosÉ 1952-1955 La C.N.T. en la revolución española. 3 vols. Buenos, Aires: Ediciones C.N.T.

Pelloutier, Fernand (1902)1946 Histoire des bourses du travail. Paris: Costes. → Published posthumously with a preface by Georges Sorel.

Sorel, Georges (1898) 1921 L’avenir socialiste des syndicats. Pages 77-133 in Georges Sorel, Matériaux d’une théorie du prolétariat. 2d ed. Paris: Rivierè.

Sorel, Georges (1908) 1950 Reflections on Violence. Translated by T. E. Hulme and J. Roth, with an introduction by Edward Shils. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published in French. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.


Brenan, Gerald (1943) 1950 The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Civil War. 2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Brissenden, Paul F. (1917)1957 The I.W.W.: A Study of American Syndicalism. 2d ed. New York: Russell.

Cole, G. D. H. (1913) 1919 The World of Labour: A Discussion of the Present and Future of Trade unionism. 4th ed. London: Bell.

Cole, G. D. H. 1953-1960 A History of Socialist Thought. 5 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. → Volume 1: Socialist Thought: The Forerunners 1789-1850, 1953. Volume 2: Marxism and Anarchism 1850-1890, 1954. Volume 3: The Second International 1889-1914, 2 parts, 1956. Volume 4: Communism and Social Democracy 1914-1931, 2 parts, 1958. Volume 5: Socialism and Fascism 1931-1939, 1960.

DollÉans, Édouard (1939) 1946 Histoire du mouve-ment ouvrier. Volume 2: 1871-1936. Paris: Colin.

Georges, Bernard; and Tintant, Denise 1962 Leon Jouhaux: Cinquante ans de syndicalisme. Volume 1: Des origines á 1921. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Goetz-Girey, Robert 1948 La pensée syndicale fran-caise: Militants et théoriciens. Paris: Colin.

Leroy, MÁxime 1913 La coutume ouvriére. 2 vols. Paris: Giard et Briére.

Lohwin, Lewis L. (1912) 1914 Syndicalism in France. 2d rev. ed. New York: Longmans; London: King. → First published as The Labor Movement in France.

Lorwin, Val R. 1954 The French Labor Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Maithon, Jean 1951 Histoire du mouvement anarchiste en France (1880-1914). Paris: Société Universitaire d’Éditions et de Librairie.

Michels, Robert 1926 Storia critica del movimento socialista itaiiano dagii inizi fino al 1911. Florence: La Voce.

Wiardi Beckman, Herman B. 1931 Het syndicalisme in Frankrijk. Amsterdam: Querido.


views updated May 18 2018



Syndicalismand its cognates, known as anarcho-syndicalism or revolutionary syndicalismwas a radical movement linked to the rise of trade unionism and socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Syndicalists traced their origins and beliefs to Marxian political thought. They believed that in society and the economy there was a split between capitalists (employers) and labor (workers) and that these two contending classes were engaged in a perpetual struggle over the proper division of an economys total product. Syndicalists and socialists maintained that the class struggle between capital and labor would persist until workers seized the full fruits of their productivity by eliminating production for profit. Syndicalists differed from socialists in their insistence that workers could liberate themselves from capitalism only through self-activity and direct action at the point of production, without resort to politics and legislation. Syndicalists shared with trade unionists an ideology that stressed worker self-activity and direct action above politics and parliamentarianism; indeed, the term is derived from syndicat, the French word for trade union. What most sharply distinguished syndicalists from other trade unionists was the formers commitment to the abolition of capitalism through revolutionary direct action.

Syndicalism achieved its largest membership and peak influence between 1905 and 1919. The first workers organization to adopt a syndicalist program was the French Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), which in its 1905 Charter of Amiens declared its autonomy from the Socialist Party and other political bodies that sought parliamentary representation. Instead of seeking to advance workers interests through electoral activity and legislative reforms, the CGT called upon its members to combat their class enemies through direct action on the job. That same year a select group of radicals in the United States created the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). At its 1905 founding convention, the IWW included members of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) and the Socialist Labor Party among its most prominent delegates and platform speakers, but by 1908 the organization had severed all formal relations with socialist and other political parties. During the same years, syndicalist organizations emerged in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, among other places. Yet except for France, Italy, and the Spanish-speaking nations, syndicalism represented only a minority tendency within a much broader worker and radical movement. This was especially true in those nations with more developed economies and powerful trade union movements, such as Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. In Germany, syndicalism was overshadowed by the Deutsche Gewerkshaften Bund (DGB) and the Socialist Party (SPD). In Britain, syndicalism existed largely as the personal cause of a single prominent labor leader, Tom Mann, whose Industrial Syndicalist Education League published pamphlets but lacked members. And in the United States, the IWW rarely built a substantial membership. Only in France, Italy, Spain, and the Latin American nations, which all had far smaller and weaker labor movements, did syndicalism emerge as a dominant tendency, and even in these nations it existed more clearly among leaders than followers.

Between 1905 and 1913, no transnational or international body united the movements separate national manifestations. Yet syndicalists shared a common ideology and common strategy and tactics. Moreover, syndicalist leaders regularly crossed national borders to promote their cause. Tom Mann traveled often to Australasia, South Africa, and North America; the American syndicalists William D. Haywood and William Z. Foster visited Britain and France; and French, Italian, and Spanish syndicalists crossed their respective borders and traversed the Atlantic. A common set of ideas and assumptions united all syndicalists. Whether they claimed to find their original inspiration in the French anarchist Pierre Proudhons tirades against property and the state or Mikhail Bakunins battles with Marx and Engels about the role of political parties and the state, they insisted that workers must liberate themselves from capitalism through direct action, with the strike as the workers most effective weapon.

For a syndicalist, no strike brought failure or defeat. If workers won their struggle, they learned the lesson of solidarity and worker power. If a strike failed, they discovered that employers were their enemies and that class struggle remained the essence of existence. Thus, even defeated strikers could return to their jobs without relinquishing the class struggle. Back on the job, workers could harass their employers and diminish their profits by strictly applying work rules to slow production, declining to use inferior materials, refusing to maintain machines in optimum condition, regulating the pace of work, and, in some instances, damaging the machinery, tools, and goods with which they worked. Syndicalists defined these tactics as sabotage, and they taught workers concrete lessons in the application of their power, without casting ballots or seeking legislative reforms. Indeed, syndicalists believed that as workers assimilated the lessons of direct action and applied them in practice, they could eliminate capitalism. The culmination of direct action would be the social general strike, in which all workers left their jobs or laid down their tools simultaneously, paralyzing the economy and demonstrating that labor, not capital, wielded power. In the aftermath of the general strike, workers organizations would administer the economy, eliminate production for profit, and reorganize the economy. As a result, political parties and the state would vanish.

In 1913 the separate national syndicalist movements united to create their own international body, a counterpart to the socialist Second International. And like the Second International, the Syndicalist International failed to survive the outbreak of World War I (19141918). Another result of the warthe Bolshevik Revolution in Russiabrought more grief to syndicalists. Most syndicalists initially found vindication in the triumph of the Bolsheviks, which they perceived as a victory for workers. Indeed, syndicalists considered the Soviets to be the Russian version of the self-governing workers institutions that would govern society and economy in the aftermath of revolution, and they enlisted enthusiastically in the Comintern and its trade union affiliate, the Profintern. But as Lenin and his comrades established their dictatorship of the proletariat and used the party and the state apparatus to dominate the new Soviet Republic, many syndicalists felt that the Bolsheviks had subjected workers to new forms of subjugation. Other syndicalists, such as Mann and Haywood, remained loyal to the Bolshevik cause. A majority of syndicalists, however, including the anarchist Emma Goldman, served as the most vitriolic critics of the Bolshevik dictatorship.

In 1923 the anti-Bolshevik syndicalists formed a second Syndicalist International. By then, however, the separate syndicalist national movements formed, at best, marginal and often minuscule worker movements compared to the dominant trade union movements. In Britain, syndicalism disappeared as a living presence, while in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France, and the United States it survived as a marginal, minority movement. Only in Spain did syndicalismin its anarcho-syndicalist formmaintain a vital presence. Here, it dominated the national labor movement until its crushing defeat by Franco and the Falangists in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Since then, wherever syndicalism has survived, it has done so solely as a concept of worker self-activity esteemed by small circles of intellectuals or as a minuscule movement among workers.

SEE ALSO Bolshevism; Capitalism; Class Conflict; Labor; Labor Union; Marxism; Socialism; Unions


Joll, James. 1980. The Anarchists. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stearns, Peter. 1971. Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: A Cause without Rebels. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Thorpe, Wayne. 1989. The Workers Themselves: Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labor, 19131923. Amsterdam, Netherlands: International Institute of Social History.

Van der Linden, Marcel, and Wayne Thorpe, eds. 1990. Revolutionary Syndicalism: An International Perspective. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press.

Melvyn Dubofsky


views updated May 14 2018


origins of syndicalism in france, 1884–1902
the amiens charter and the showdown with government, 1902–1914
syndicalism in italy
syndicalism in spain

Syndicalism was a movement at the confluence of anarchism and early trade unionism. The term syndicalism comes from the French syndicalisme, from syndicat, the common term for any group seeking to defend common interests. Syndicat came to mean "trade union," while syndicalisme came to mean the belief that workers could, through their unions, eschew socialist parties and electoral politics, defend and improve their conditions, gradually build their numbers, and eventually overthrow capitalism, replacing capitalist ownership with worker control through their own union organizations. The primary impulse for the ideology of syndicalism came from anarchists. Those hostile to syndicalism often referred to it as anarchosyndicalism, while those who favored it called it revolutionary syndicalism. Syndicalism first emerged in France during the 1880s and reached its apogee in the first decade of the twentieth century. Syndicalism developed in parallel fashion in Italy and Spain (and after World War I in a number of other countries).

origins of syndicalism in france, 1884–1902

Syndicalism brought together the emerging forces of the labor movement with anarchists in the new Bourses du Travail (Labor Exchanges). In 1884 trade unions were legalized, and in 1886 the Paris Prefect of Police subsidized the first Bourse du Travail in order to control the crowds seeking work. Inspired by the Communard Jean Allemane and by the young anarchist journalist Fernand Pelloutier, Parisian workers insisted on their right to run the bourses themselves. They thus created a unique French institution, not only a place to look for jobs but also a space for political development. By 1907 there were 157 bourses across France.

In 1892 Pelloutier and Émile Pouget, also a journalist, helped create the Fédération des Bourses du Travail, which soon claimed four hundred thousand members. Pelloutier was secretary of the federation from 1895 until his death in 1901. The federation's Nantes Congress of 1894 was dominated by anarchists; the congress resolved that workers could achieve their own liberation through direct action, without participating in electoral politics. Henceforth the federation opposed republican and socialist parties that participated in electoral politics; it aimed to coordinate strikes and ultimately unleash the general strike that would bring down capitalism directly and turn factories and workshops over to their workers. In 1895 a rival group founded the smaller Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT; General Confederation of Labor). A good many French workers began to turn toward syndicalism following the anarchist attacks of 1892–1894; "propaganda by the deed" seemed a dead end. In 1902 the two organizations merged under the name CGT with a program largely dictated by syndicalists, who controlled most of the top positions, though the secretary, Victor Griffuelhes, was also active in politics: he was linked to Edouard Vaillant's Blanquist Party as it turned toward socialist politics in the 1890s.

the amiens charter and the showdown with government, 1902–1914

In 1904 the CGT began preparing a great strike for the eight-hour day, scheduled for 1 May 1906. Many hoped this would be the general strike to bring down capitalism. But the strike was triggered prematurely when, on 10 March 1906, a gas explosion at Courrières killed between 1,060 and 1,300 miners. Across the country, 61,000 miners went on strike. Soon hundreds of thousands in all trades were striking.

Georges Clemenceau, then minister of the interior, covered the striking areas with troops—fifty thousand for Paris alone—and arrested seven hundred union leaders. Workers felt deserted by politicians: even the socialists had shown too much willingness to collaborate with the government. Labor would go it alone. The CGT Congress at Amiens in October 1906 voted overwhelmingly for a broad resolution that became known as the Amiens Charter. It was the most influential statement of the syndicalist ideal. It envisaged that the union movement should not only struggle for better conditions but also prepare "integral emancipation, which can be realized only by the expropriation of capitalist property" through a general strike. The union, "today the group of resistance, will be, in the future, the group of production and of distribution, the base of social reorganization." Direct, grassroots action, especially strikes, would in turn further strengthen unions, leading to the general strike. Through these unions, workers would replace owners, managers, and the whole capitalist structure with a democratic economic structure run by the workers themselves.

This was the key to syndicalist thought. Workers did not need and indeed should keep aloof from electoral politics, even from links to the Socialist Party. This view had long-lasting effects. Only the year before Amiens, the French socialists had unified into one party, the Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO; French Section of the Workers' International). The Amiens Charter kept French unions independent of political parties and thus prevented the formation of a labor or social democratic party as in the United Kingdom and Germany. The charter also inspired some intellectuals, led by Georges Sorel, to the view that revolutionary violence would cleanse and purify society. Sorel believed that the general strike was only a myth to inspire workers. Such ideas, however, were extremely rare among workers themselves.

Clemenceau became prime minister after Amiens. During his three-year reign, troops brutally repressed many strikes, killing strikers and demonstrators on several occasions. The practical failure of direct action eroded the prestige of the hard-line syndicalists, and in July 1909 Griffuelhes was replaced as secretary of the CGT by Léon Jouhaux, a more pragmatic syndicalist, but repression continued to shift the balance of union power from syndicalists to moderates. By 1914 the CGT used the rhetoric of syndicalism only to cover the reality of pragmatic collective bargaining. When World War I began, far from declaring the general strike as many had once expected, the CGT cooperated with the government in the union sacrée (sacred union). Syndicalism ceased to be a major force in France, but it still had far to go in Italy and Spain.

syndicalism in italy

Syndicalism in Italy was a response to a new era in politics after the turn of the nineteenth century. Reformist socialists of the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI; Italian Socialist Party) began cooperating with a progressive government. This policy worked well for workers in developed industrial areas but not for nonunionized labor, poor rural laborers in the south, or the unemployed, groups within which anarchists had developed significant support. From their ranks emerged syndicalists led by Alceste de Ambris, who was involved in the first syndicalist newspaper, Il sindacato operato (The workers' union; first appeared 1905).

Expelled from the PSI and defeated when the reformists created the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGL; General Confederation of Labor), the syndicalists, acting through a plethora of local organizations, encouraged major strikes among rural laborers and artisans. These reached a high point with a strike of 20,000 rural laborers in Parma in May and June 1908. The strike was defeated by the united front of employers. The syndicalists sought to regain support, setting up the Committee for Direct Action as a faction within the CGL in 1910. Antimilitarist ideas brought more workers to their movement after Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire to make Libya an Italian colony in 1911. In November 1912 syndicalists split from the CGL and set up the Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI; Italian Syndicalist Union), which achieved a membership of one hundred thousand the following year.

By this point many political anarchists had joined the USI. Syndicalists found that however much their principles derived from anarchism, they were more interested in trade union issues, so the USI was torn between anarchist efforts to foment a revolution and unionist attempts to win battles with employers. In 1914 troops killed three workers at anarchist antimilitarist demonstrations, and anarchists called a general strike. The results took everyone by surprise. More than a million workers went on strike in what became known as "Red Week," June 1914. Although Benito Mussolini (the future dictator) in Milan, Alceste de Ambris in Parma, and Errico Malatesta in Ancona proved effective leaders in their areas, "Red Week" achieved only disillusionment. Nevertheless, it showed that syndicalism was a strong and growing force at the outbreak of World War I.

syndicalism in spain

In the 1870s and 1880s Russian émigrés Mikhail Bakunin's and Peter Kropotkin's competing anarchist ideas inspired many in the nascent labor movement in Spain; those of Marx inspired others. The Marxists were at the core that in 1888 founded the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT; General Union of Workers). It was not, however, until 1907 that, inspired by the Amiens Charter, Spanish anarchists and others founded the Solidaridad Obrera (SO; Workers' Solidarity) in Barcelona. Similar anarchist groups quickly sprang up across the country, and in November 1910 they coalesced as the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT; National Confederation of Labor).

The CNT aimed at unity with the UGT but became instead a competing trade-union central based on revolutionary syndicalism. In 1911, after its second congress, a general strike broke out. The government accused the CNT of fomenting the strike and declared the organization illegal. The CNT had only twenty-six thousand members, so it is more likely that many workers shared similar views than that the CNT actually caused the strike. But it was not until 1915 that the CNT was rebuilt. It played a major role after World War I, culminating in its major role on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war.

See alsoAnarchism; Anarchosyndicalism; Labor Movements; Strikes.


Amdur, Kathryn E. Syndicalist Legacy: Trade Unions and Politics in Two French Cities in the Era of World War I. Urbana, Ill., 1986.

Ansell, Christopher K. Schism and Solidarity in Social Movements: The Politics of Labor in the French Third Republic. New York, 2001.

Levy, Carl. "Currents of Italian Syndicalism before 1926." International Review of Social History 45 (2000): 209–250.

Linden, Marcel van der, and Wayne Thorpe, eds. Revolutionary Syndicalism: An International Perspective. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1990.

Milner, Susan. The Dilemmas of Internationalism: French Syndicalism and the International Labour Movement, 1900–1914. New York, 1990.

Mitchell, Barbara. The Practical Revolutionaries: A New Interpretation of the French Anarchosyndicalists. New York, 1987.

Papayanis, Nicholas. Alphonse Merrheim: The Emergence of Reformism in Revolutionary Syndicalism, 1871–1925. Dordrecht, Netherlands, and Boston, 1985.

Roberts, David D. The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979.

Sorel, Georges. Reflections on Violence. Translated by T. E. Hulme. New York, 1975.

Thorpe, Wayne. The Workers Themselves: Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour, 1913–1923. Boston, 1989.

Tucker, Kenneth H. French Revolutionary Syndicalism and the Public Sphere. New York, 1996.

Vandervort, Bruce. Victor Griffuelhes and French Syndicalism, 1895–1922. Baton Rouge, La., 1996.

Charles Sowerwine


views updated May 23 2018


SYNDICALISM, or revolutionary industrial unionism, originated in France but has been identified in the United States with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905. The IWW sought strong, centralized unions, while French syndicalists preferred smaller unions. Both opposed action through existing governments.

Syndicalists sought to establish a producers' cooperative commonwealth, with socially owned industries managed and operated by syndicats, or labor unions. Emphasizing class struggle, they advocated direct action through sabotage and general strikes. Opponents, criticizing the movement for militant actions, opposing political government, and condoning violence, secured antisyndicalist laws in several states. The syndicalist movement waned after World War I when many former adherents joined Communist, Trotskyite, or other Socialist groups.


Kimeldorf, Howard. Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Gordon S.Watkins/c. w.

See alsoCommunist Party, United States of America ; Industrial Workers of the World ; Labor .


views updated May 23 2018

syn·di·cal·ism / ˈsindəkəˌlizəm/ • n. hist. a movement for transferring the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution to workers' unions. Influenced by Proudhon and by the French social philosopher Georges Sorel (1847–1922), syndicalism developed in French labor unions during the late 19th century and was at its most vigorous between 1900 and 1914, particularly in France, Italy, Spain, and the U.S.DERIVATIVES: syn·di·cal·ist n. & adj.


views updated Jun 08 2018

syndicalism Early 20th-century form of socialism originating in France, but also influential in Spain and Italy. It proposed public ownership of the means of production by small worker groups and called for the elimination of central government.


views updated May 29 2018

syndicalism A political movement or ideology which promotes workers' control through the medium of the workplace. It was particularly strong in France, Italy, and Spain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but was extinguished in the 1930s.