Alexander Schapiro – Anarchosyndicalism and Anarchist Organization

Alexander Schapiro (1882-1946) was an anarcho-syndicalist militant active in the international anarchist movement and the revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist movement in Russia during the Russian Revolution and civil war (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism, Chapter 18: The Russian Revolution). Born in Russia, he was raised in Turkey, studied in France and then joined his father in London, where both of them were active in the London Anarchist Federation. He was a delegate of the Jewish Anarchist Federation of London at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam and one of the signatories to the International Anarchist Manifesto against the First World War (Volume One, Selection 81). He became the secretary of the Anarchist Red Cross, which provided aid to imprisoned anarchists, particularly in Russia. He returned to Russia after the 1917 February Revolution, where he worked on the anarcho-syndicalist paper, Golos Truda [The Voice of Labour], and sought to revive and strengthen the Russian anarcho-syndicalist movement. For a time, Schapiro collaborated with the Bolshevik government, taking a post in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. He protested the persecution and imprisonment of anarchists by the Bolshevik regime and went into exile in 1922. He became active in the revived International Workers Association (IWA), which adopted an anarcho-syndicalist program (Volume One, Selection 114), and helped organize relief for anarchist prisoners in Russia. He spent time in Berlin, where he worked with Gregory Maksimov (Volume One, Selection 83) on the Russian anarcho-syndicalist paper in exile, Rabochii Put’ [The Workers Voice], and then went to France, where he continued his work with the IWA and edited the anarcho-syndicalist paper, La Voix du Travail [The Voice of Labour]. He eventually emigrated to New York, where he died in 1946.

The first excerpt set forth below is taken from Schapiro’s September 8, 1917 article in Golos Truda, “The Crisis of Power,” in which he calls for decentralization and self-organization in place of the centralized power favoured by the Bolsheviks. Events were to take a much different turn when the Bolsheviks seized power two months later in the co-called October Revolution and proceeded to establish a centralized dictatorship.

The Crisis of Power (1917)

The last scenes of the first act of the crisis of power are playing themselves out at a feverish pace. And there is only one possible outcome: the removal of the bourgeoisie from any interference in the affairs of the working class. This is now the principal condition for achieving fundamental social changes in the life of the country, the more so as the bourgeoisie is marching openly and defiantly hand in hand with the Kornilovs [leader of a failed Tsarist coup in August 1917] and other conspirators against the revolution.

But we must not close our eyes to the approaching second act, when Russia must decide whether to introduce a socialist government, as demanded by the Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. If this should happen, the form of power would doubtless be different, but the root of the evil, the essence, would stay the same. For as long as power exists, a small circle of men will have in their hands the right to decide the fate of the whole people; and even if these rulers are socialists of the most decent and honourable sort, a clash between them and the people is unavoidable, and their relations after each conflict will grow more and more intense and antagonistic. The new authority will use as much force as the present authority against its enemies, and the struggle for socialism, the struggle for the rights of man, the struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity, will be as ferocious as it has been until now.

Anticipating this new crisis of socialist power, we come to the conclusion that there is only one way out: the removal of all governmental interference in the affairs of the toiling masses. There must first occur a fundamental decentralization of power to the point of its final disappearance as a factor in the life of the Russian people. The people must not allow themselves to be muzzled again – not even with the muzzle of socialist production – so that they will have to fight once more for the elementary rights of free men.

The transfer of authority to the hands of a Central Executive Committee is not the answer to the crisis of power. It can only slow down the development of this crisis, not resolve it. The only way out of the present situation is to transfer administrative tasks to local organizations – in other words, complete decentralization and the broadest self-direction of local organizations. In this work the local soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies can and must play an important role in regulating the course of everyday life and guaranteeing the local population the widest development of freedom.

Only the spread of self-determination and local self-rule will definitively resolve the crisis of power.

Golos Truda, September 8, 1917

Many years later, when the anarchists in Spain were fighting for their lives in another revolution, Schapiro wrote the following introduction to an IWA pamphlet by Pierre Besnard, Anarcho-Syndicalism and Anarchism, which set forth the principles of modern anarcho-syndicalism. Schapiro sought to persuade anarchist communists to support anarcho-syndicalist trade union organizations, and pointed to the Spanish FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) as an example of how anarchists can work within broad based anarcho-syndicalist organizations, such as the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour), while maintaining their own explicitly anarchist organizations to help prevent the trade union organizations from becoming apolitical unions or subservient to political parties. At the same time, Schapiro recognized the dangers inherent is such dual organization, as the ideological anarchist organizations could become the de facto leaders of the trade union organization, something which had happened in Spain with disastrous results, as a number of FAI militants took up positions in the Catalonian and Republican governments and sought to subordinate the anarchist movement to the immediate war aims of the Republican government in its fight against fascism, which ultimately resulted in the Communist domination of the Republican forces and the suppression of the anarchist movement (Volume One, Selections 127 & 128). Schapiro was very critical of the Spanish anarchist collaboration with the Republican government and joined with Pierre Besnard at the June 1937 IWA Congress in Paris in denouncing the CNT for abandoning anarcho-syndicalist principles. Translated by Paul Sharkey.

Introduction to Pierre Besnard’s Anarcho-Syndicalism and Anarchism (1937)

When the Russian anarchists nearly a half a century ago pioneered the hoisting of the anarcho-syndicalist colours, the word was rather coldly received by the anarchist movement. And in 1917, following the downfall of Tsarism it was also the eve of the October Revolution anarcho-communists were unduly guarded about and even hostile towards this new anarchist formation.

Anarcho-syndicalism is not a doctrine. It is the meeting between a given doctrine and an equally specific trade union tactic.

Revolutionary syndicalism, as we knew it in France, prior to the war, was, so to speak, created and nurtured by anarchist militants, by [Fernand] Pelloutier [Volume One, Selection 56], by [Victor] Griffuelhes, by [Emile] Pouget. But right from the moment it arrived, its creators and propagandists, its militants made to surround the movement with a wall of absolute neutrality as far as political or philosophical ideology went [Volume One, Selection 60]. Remember the terms of the Charter of Amiens [“syndicalism is sufficient unto itself”]…

But the class struggle is of positive value only if it is constructive in its aspirations. So that struggle has to be endowed with a future program that would complement its minimum program of partial demands in the here and now.

Anarcho-syndicalism arose precisely out of that need, which anarchists have eventually come to appreciate, to add to the short-term program a social program that would embrace the whole economic and social life of a people.

The Great War swept away the Charter of trade union neutrality. And the split inside the First International between Marx and Bakunin [Volume One, Chapter 6] was echoed nearly a half-century later in the inevitable historic split in the post-war international workers movement.

To counter the policy of subordinating the workers’ movement to the conveniences of the so-called workers’” political parties, a new movement founded upon mass direct action, outside of and against all political parties, rose from the still smoking embers of the 1914-1918 war. Anarcho-syndicalism made a reality of the only confluence of forces and personnel capable of guaranteeing the worker and peasant class its complete independence and its inalienable right to revolutionary initiative in all of the manifestations of an unrelenting struggle against capitalism and State, and the rebuilding of a libertarian social life upon the ruins of outmoded regimes.

So anarcho-syndicalism is complementary to anarcho-communism. The latter was afflicted by a considerable shortcoming that paralyzed all its propaganda: its detachment from the labouring masses. In order to plant libertarian principles there and afford them opportunities for actual realization, what was required was the organizing of trade unions and the placement of trade unionism upon libertarian and anti-statist foundations.

Which is what anarcho-syndicalism did and continues to do.

Now that anarcho-syndicalism exists as a force organizing the social revolution on libertarian communist lines, anarcho-communists owe it to themselves to become anarcho-syndicalists for the sake of organizing the revolution and every anarchist eligible to become a trade unionist should be a member of the anarcho-syndicalist General Labour Confederation.

Organized, outside of their unions, into their ideological (or, to borrow the terminology employed by our Spanish comrades, specific) federations, anarchists remain the continually active leaven, allowing anarcho-syndicalism to build but preventing dangerous compromises.

But the ideological guidance implied by the builders being imbued with the ideal of the propagandists turns into effective leadership. Prior to this, and especially in the aftermath of the war, nationally and internationally, the trade union movements had always found themselves tied to the apron strings of some workers’” party or labour International. Anarcho-syndicalism, which today stands for the revolutionary syndicalist direct action movement and libertarian reconstruction, must not, by aping the rest of the workers movement, come to find that it too is tied to the apron strings of some specific organization be it at the national or international level. That would be a mistake every bit as irreversibly fatal as it has proved for the reformist or dictatorship-minded brands of trade unionism.

The Anarchist Federation supports the Anarcho-Syndicalist Confederation in its class struggle and striving for revolutionary reconstruction. But it should not assume the initiative or leadership of it.

On the international scene, an Anarchist International can only mirror the national Anarchist Federations. It will be the bulwark of the IWA [International Workers Association – Volume One, Selection 114], but must never become its commander-in-chief.

May 30, 1937


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