Geoffrey Ostergaard: The Relevance of Syndicalism

Geoffrey Ostergaard (1926-1990) was an English anarcho-syndicalist who also wrote about non-violence and direct action. His publications include The Gentle Anarchists, with Melville Currell, Nonviolent Revolution in India, and The Tradition of Workers’ Control. I included excerpts from his essay, “Fabianism and the Managerial Revolution” in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977). In “The Relevance of Syndicalism,” originally published in Colin Ward’s Anarchy magazine, Volume 3, No. 6, June 1963, he argues for the relevance of syndicalism by connecting the syndicalists’ anti-statism and direct action tactics to the burgeoning peace movements of the 1960s. In the mid-1980s, he revised the article for inclusion in a book of articles on influential anarchist thinkers and movements that I was putting together (but for which I was unable to find a publisher). This is the first time that his revised version of the paper has appeared, in the first of two parts.

THE RELEVANCE OF SYNDICALISM

Geoffrey Ostergaard

Syndicalism, as a movement of significant size and influence, flourished in the two decades prior to 1917 and, since then, apart from a brief and cruel flowering in Spain during the Civil War, it has been largely a spent force. Avowedly syndicalist groups and organizations still exist in many countries but their memberships are numbered in the hundreds and thousands rather than in tens of thousands and millions; and a dispassionate observer would be forced to place them in that half-submerged world inhabited by ‘the socialist sects.’ Periodical1y attempts are made to regroup the scattered forces of syndicalism in preparation for a new offensive. But it seems unlikely that such attempts will lead to a revival of the movement in its classical form in the foreseeable future.

Why, then, should we bother our heads with syndicalism? Why not leave the subject to the historians? It is clearly one of the failures of history, a movement that did not ‘come off.’ With our eyes on the present and the future, why concern ourselves with the past, especially the unsuccessful past? As T.S. Eliot reminded us, ‘We cannot revive old factions or follow an antique drum’; and perhaps, even if we could, we ought not to do so.

There are at least two good reasons for not adopting the viewpoint implicit in such questions. One is that the present and possible future cannot be understood without an understanding of the past. And by ‘the past’ I mean not only the ‘successful’ past — that part of history which most obviously leads to the present; I include also the ‘unsuccessful’ past — that part of history which from the viewpoint of the present seems to have led nowhere. It is a point often overlooked, even by intelligent historians, that there is as much, if not more, to be learned from the failures as from the successes of history. This, as I shall try to show, is particularly true of syndicalism. An understanding of why syndicalism failed and a pondering of the implications of that failure can illuminate our understanding of the present in a way that no account of ‘successful’ movements could do.

A second reason for not dismissing syndicalism out of hand is perhaps more debatable, since it stems from the values inherent in my own political position. Looked at in the round, the world socialist movement since 1917 has been divided into two great camps the social democratic camp, on the one side, and the Bolshevik or Communist camp, on the other. Initially, what divided the two camps was the question of which road to take to the socialist society. The social democrats or (to avoid the ambiguity this term may now have for British readers) democratic socialists opted for the constitutional road, while the Communists chose the revolutionary road taken by their great hero, Lenin. In recent decades, however, the division between the two has become blurred.

‘Revisionists’ have been at work in both camps. In the Communist camp, failure to make much progress along the revolutionary road in advanced capitalist countries led to doubts which eventually expressed themselves in the form of ‘Eurocommunism.’ Essentially, what Eurocommunism boils down to is the reluctant acceptance of the basic idea of the first ‘revisionist’ of Marxism, Eduard Bernstein: the road to socialism, in some countries at least, must be constitutional and democratic. But at the same time as many Communists were re-routing themselves, democratic socialists engaged in a revisionism even more radical. In their case, the definition of socialism itself was involved. Henceforth, socialism was not to be defined as it once had been by every kind of socialist: the social ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange. So long as the State controls ‘the governing heights of the economy,’ it is not necessary, so it was argued, to abrogate capitalist ownership completely. Abrogation is necessary, if at all, only for certain ‘basic’ industries; in others, State regulation will suffice.

However, despite the curious cavortings of both Communists and democratic socialists, they have remained united in one underlying belief: the road to socialism lies through the acquisition by their respective parties of the political power of the State, the institution claiming, within its territory, a monopoly of the major means of physical coercion and, within its territory but also in relation to other States, the attribute of sovereignty. In this respect, both differ from the socialists of what may be called the third camp: the anti-state or non-state libertarian socialists.

In the first forty years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, not much was heard from this camp. The notable exception was in Spain; but, even there, the victory in 1939 of Franco’s fascist forces appeared to mark for most socialists the final liquidation of libertarian socialism. Historically, this third camp has comprised a variety of groups and movements, both constitutional and revolutionary. These include the so-called pre-Marxian ‘utopian socialists'; the cooperative movement; anarchists of all hues other than ‘individualist'; the guild socialists; and, of course, the syndicalists. Apart from the doubtful exception of the cooperators, the list may look like a catalogue of history’s ‘failures.’ Twenty years ago, certainly, that is how most historians would have read the list. But things have changed in the third camp as well as in the other two camps.

In the late ‘fifties and the ‘sixties, under the umbrella of ‘The New Left,’ libertarian socialism resurfaced. The starting point of New Left thinking was disillusionment with both democratic socialism and Marxian Communism as then extant in the shape of Welfare Statism and Stalinism, respectively. As New Left movements proliferated, various themes, theories and actions, all distinctly libertarian, began to come to the fore: anti-militarism, nonviolent direct action, the rediscovery of community, community action and politics, radical decentralism, participatory democracy, the organization of the poor and oppressed inter-racially, and the building of a counter culture and counter-institutions (such as new co-ops, collectives and communes). For many youthful New Leftists all these were novel ideas which they believed they themselves had invented. But it was not long before the more historically-minded among them began to realize that the ‘new’ ideas were essentially a rediscovery of old insights and a reassertion of a once-honoured but submerged tradition. As a consequence, there was a revival of serious study of old masters and old movements. In Academia, even anarchism became a respectable subject of enquiry and discussion.

For a brief moment in 1968 it looked as though forces ranged behind the New Left banner might succeed in making a spectacular breakthrough in the heartlands of advanced industrial capitalism. But, for a variety of complex reasons, the prospect (or dream) of a libertarian revolution speedily vanished, and by the early ‘seventies the New Left – ‘a movement of movements’ rather than a single movement – had dissolved into disputatious rival fragments. Libertarian socialism had been reasserted and today, in the mid-eighties, it remains a lively current of thought, infecting in some degree socialists from the other two camps. But it has not yet succeeded in firmly establishing itself as a distinctive third camp with a coherent analysis of the contemporary world and a clear strategy for achieving the classical socialist goal of a free, egalitarian, classless and transnational society.

This is unfortunate, since there is no doubt that at the present time we are witnessing the continuing decomposition of both democratic socialism and Marxian communism. The democratic socialist road, it is now clear, leads not to socialism as traditionally understood but to the managerial-bureaucratic Welfare-cum-Warfare State. It is equally clear that the Communist road leads to a variant of the same end. Overall, in the period since 1917, Communism has gained ground at the expense of democratic socialism. In relatively undeveloped countries, usually in alliance with the old enemy of nationalism, Communism has demonstrated in a way that democratic socialism has never done its capacity to make a revolution, to establish a new social order. What, alas, it has not demonstrated, and shows no signs of demonstrating, is its capacity to create a new social order remotely resembling that of the classical socialist ideal. If the future does, indeed, lie with Communism, so much the worse for the socialist dream! For, if one has to choose between them, a managerial-bureaucratic State run on the basis of a state socialist economy is even more tyrannical than one run on the basis of a capitalist  or mixed economy.

From this perspective, the libertarian socialist tradition takes on a special significance for the present generation of socialists. It may be — we have cause enough to be skeptical — that there is no road to the truly socialist society. The whole ideology of socialism over the last 175 years may come to be seen in the future — if humanity has any future — as yet one more ideology preparing the ground for the rise of yet one more historic ruling class. But, if there be a road, I am convinced that it is the third road which the syndicalists among others helped to pave. It is for this reason that syndicalism remains a subject of continuing relevance.

The most striking feature of syndicalist thought and action is the importance attached to the class struggle. Classical syndicalism, it should be noted, emerged at about the same time as the first revisionist controversy within Marxism at the turn of the century. Led by Bernstein, the revisionists questioned, among other things, Marx’s analysis of class development and his theory of the State. They argued, in effect, for what I have called the democratic socialist position — the view that socialism could be achieved gradually by a broad democratic movement acquiring, peacefully and constitutionally, control of the existing machinery of the State. This amounted to a right-wing revision of Marxism. Syndicalism, in contrast, was a revision of Marxism to the left. The struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was seen by the syndicalists as the very essence of Marxism — ‘the alpha and omega of socialism’, as Sorel put it. All their energies were directed toward the relentless pursuit of this struggle: the class war was to be fought to a victorious finish with no compromise given or taken. Any form of class collaboration was seen as anathema. Like orthodox Marxists, the syndicalists regarded the existing State as an instrument of coercion for maintaining bourgeois domination. Where they parted company from the orthodox, however, was in their opposition to any form of the State. Marx had argued that the task of the proletariat was to destroy, in the course of the revolution, the bourgeois State and to put in its place a proletarian State. The new State would socialize the means of production, distribution and exchange, thereby abolishing social classes, and this would be the prelude to the eventual liquidation of the coercive apparatus of society. The State, as Engels put it, would ‘wither away.’. The syndicalists, in contrast, and influenced in this respect by the anarchists, insisted that the State as such must be destroyed in the course of the revolution: to build a new State on the ruins of the old would simply result in the perpetuation of class rule over the proletariat in a new, possibly more vicious, form.

This view implied a rejection not only of parliamentary action — the contesting of elections for bourgeois parliaments — but also of political action in the narrow Statist sense of the term. The syndicalists insisted that the class war must be waged, as the French put it, on the terrain de classe by direct action. Fighting the class war involves, of course, political action in the wider sense of a struggle for social power. What distinguished the syndicalists was the view that this struggle for social power, the struggle to achieve proletarian ascendancy, did not involve setting up a specialized political organization, to wit, a political party. Quite the contrary. To try to achieve socialism through such an organization, argued the syndicalists, would be fatal to the very aims of the proletariat.

It is important to grasp this point and the reasoning behind it if we are to begin to understand syndicalism. To Communists rejection of party organization appears as the fatal error of the syndicalists. The Marxist revolutions of our century, they would argue, have all been carried through only by means of the highly disciplined form of the proletarian party perfected by Lenin. As Lenin put it to some syndicalists who visited Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution: ‘You cannot lead the proletariat without a Party.’ No Communist Party means no revolution; at best, only revolt that stops short of revolution. How, it might be asked, could the syndicalists have made such a stupid mistake?

This, of course, is to beg the question. But leaving aside for the moment the suggestion that the syndicalists were in error, and noting as we do so that some syndicalists, such as Tom Mann, did admit to error and joined the Communist Party, it is relatively easy to see how the classical syndicalists arrived at their position. In a sense, they did so because they were more Marxist than Marx himself, and perhaps less heretical Marxists than Lenin. (There is a strong case for arguing that Bolshevism is the greatest Marxist heresy, turning the materialist conception on its head and, by its political success, invalidating the theory.) The classical syndicalists accepted wholeheartedly the materialist conception of history, and deduced from it the conclusion that political power is essentially a derivative from economic power. As James Connolly put it, ‘It is an axiom, enforced by the experience of the ages, that they who rule industrially will rule politically.’ A class that possesses economic power will thus necessarily, sooner rather than later, acquire political power. If, then, the proletariat, like the bourgeoisie before it, sets about acquiring economic power and is able to do so, it need not worry overmuch about political power. For the proletariat, as for the industrial bourgeoisie, economic power means power over and within industry. So, if the workers can win control of industry, the battle for proletarian ascendancy will have been won. James Connolly, again, expressed the point succinctly in these words ‘The workshop is the cockpit of civilization…. The fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is being fought out every day for the power to control industry.’

But there is more to the syndicalist case than this. Taking seriously, indeed, the theory of the class struggle, the syndicalists worked for a clean-cut, uncompromising proletarian victory. Socialism for them meant the replacement of bourgeois culture and institutions by proletarian culture and institutions. Their whole conception of socialism was, in the words of a Freedom editorial of the time, a thoroughly ‘working class conception.’ They had no time at all for middle class socialists. They had little patience even for the guild socialists whose ideas were closest to their own. Because guild socialists retained in some form the institution of the State, conceived in a Fabian-way as representing the interests of consumers, the syndicalists thought, as one of them put it, that they were ‘incapable of conceiving a commonwealth which is not designed on the canons of bourgeois architecture.’ Designing and building a commonwealth on the canons of proletarian architecture was what the syndicalists were about. When Marx in his Address to the First International had said that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves, the syndicalists thought he meant it. They did not think he meant that emancipation would come through the organization of a self-styled proletarian party led principally by people of bourgeois origins who, for one reason or another — and not always, they suspected, for creditable reasons — had taken up the cause of the workers. Bourgeois socialist intellectuals — professors, students, publicists and the like — had, the syndicalists thought, only a strictly limited and auxiliary role to play in the workers’ movement. The task of such people was to make explicit what was implicit in the social relations of capitalist society. Most definitely, it was not their task to instruct the proletariat, to guide the workers, and to lead them into correct courses of action. A workers’ movement which allowed itself to be directed by bourgeois intellectuals, even déclassé intellectuals, would, they believed, end up either compromising with the status quo or establishing a new form of class rule over the proletariat.

From this perspective, the syndicalists proceeded to juxtapose the concept of class against the concept of party. As social formations, the two are quite different. A class is a natural product of historical development, comprising individuals who occupy essentially the same position in the economic order of society. A party, in contrast, is an artificial aggregate, a consciously contrived organization, a social artifact, composed of heterogeneous elements drawn from all or, at least, a variety of classes. A class is based on a homogeneity of origin and conditions of life, and the bond of unity between its members is primarily economic. A party, however, represents essentially an intellectual unity: the bond uniting its members is primarily ideological. When individuals are approached on the basis of their class, the focus is on their role in the economic order, a role which sharply separates them from members of other classes. Thus the opposition of class interests is highlighted. But when individuals are approached on the basis of party, the focus is on their role as citizens and electors in the political order, and this role they share with members of all classes. Inevitably, on this approach, the opposition of class interests is muted. Parties may, and often do, express particular class interests — hence the view, held by political sociologists, that elections are the democratic expression of the class struggle. But parties also serve to moderate and to contain class antagonism. And, whatever the function of particular parties may be, the party system as a whole works to mitigate class conflicts and to preserve the existing socio-economic and political system.

The syndicalists, of course, appreciated that classes as such do not act. Social action involves the action of individuals in and through organizations. Organization of the proletariat, therefore, was an admitted necessity. In this respect, the syndicalists differed from those among the classical anarchists who minimized the importance of organization and who pinned their hopes on spontaneous revolutionary uprisings, stimulated by catalytic agents like Bakunin.

But, if the class struggle was the basic reality, why, asked the syndicalists, set up a special organization — a political party — which from its very nature would inevitably undermine the struggle? Why, indeed, when the proletariat already had an organization of its own: the trade or labour union — an organization based on the working class, confined (at that time) to the working class, and set up by the workers for the purpose of defending their interests in the daily struggle against their capitalist masters? True, the trade unions had been conceived, even by their creators, as mainly ameliorative instruments, as a means to win concessions for the workers within the social framework of capitalism. But there was no a priori reason why the role of unions should be so limited. Given proper direction, it was argued, they could be transformed into revolutionary instruments.

A single-minded emphasis on the potentialities of the trade union is in fact the most distinctive single feature of classical syndicalism. Syndicalists differed among themselves about how unions should be organized, many favouring industrial rather than craft unions, but all agreed that they had a dual role to perform: first, the traditional role of defending the interests of the workers under capitalism; and, secondly, the revolutionary role of overthrowing capitalism and constituting themselves as the basic units of the succeeding socialist society. Referring to this second role, James Connolly put it thus: ‘to build up an industrial republic with the shell of the political state, in order that, when the industrial republic is fully organized, it may crack the shell of the political state and step into its place in the scheme of the universe.’ As these words suggest, the more important second role became operative at once and not simply during and on the morrow of the revolution. In other words, syndicalism was not just a blueprint of the future socialist society in which unions would be the basic units of all social organization and would federate at the local, regional, national and transnational levels in order to carry out all the useful functions presently performed by bourgeois organizations. The task of the unions was to struggle here and now to divest the existing organizations of capitalist society of all life and to transfer whatever value they might have to the proletarian organizations. This part of the syndicalist strategy was summed up in Sorel’s words: ‘to snatch from the State and from the Commune, one by one, all their attributes in order to enrich the proletarian organisms in the process of formation.’

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