Geoffrey Ostergaard: The Relevance of Syndicalism, Part 2

Here is the second part of the revised and previously unpublished version of Geoffrey Ostergaard’s The Relevance of Syndicalism, the original version of which was published in Anarchy magazine in 1963. It is in this portion of his article that Ostergaard argues that the syndicalists’ anti-statism and direct action tactics retained their relevance in the context of the post-war peace movement. Because “War is the health of the State,” as Randolf Bourne once wrote, it will continue to plague humanity until nation states are abolished.

The Relevance of Syndicalism: Part 2

Leninists have often classified the syndicalists as ‘economistic’ and accused them of ignoring politics and the State and, more generally, the problem of power. The label and the accusation, however, are both unwarranted. To the Leninist, the syndicalists might have replied thus: ‘Our actions demonstrate clearly that we appreciate what real politics are about. Nor are we unaware that the bourgeoisie will use the coercive forces of the State to try to repress our movement: that is why we envisage the workers having to resort to arms to defend what they will capture in the course of the revolution. And as for ignoring the problem of power, far from doing that we propose the most realistic way open to the workers to acquire power. We propose to begin to acquire power at the point of production where, according to the logic of Marxist theory, we ought to begin; that is, in the factories and mines. We propose this because we are convinced that, unless the workers win power bases within capitalist society, there will be no proletarian revolution, whatever other kind of revolution there might be. As we syndicalists see it, the revolution must begin in the workshop. Our message to our fellow workers is much the same as Goethe’s message to the emigrant in search of liberty: Here, or nowhere, is your America. Here, in the workshop and in the mine, we must accomplish the revolution or it will be accomplished nowhere. So long as we are a subject class industrially, so long will we remain a subject class politically. The real revolution must be made not in Parliament, not even at the barricades, but in the places where we earn our daily bread. The organizations that we have built up to carry on our daily struggle must be the foundations of the new order and we must be its architects. The law and morality that we have evolved in our long struggle against capitalism must be the law and morality of the future workers’ commonwealth. All other proposals are but snares and delusions.’

The syndicalist strategy of revolution did, therefore, involve a struggle for social power — a struggle to be conducted through direct action based on the workers’ own class organizations. The tactics of direct action included ca’canny or go-slow, the use of the boycott, insistence that goods produced should carry a trade union label, sabotage, and, of course, industrial strikes. What is common to all these tactics is a determined refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of bourgeois rule. It is not, argued the syndicalists, a proper function of trade unions to make agreements with the employers. Negotiations, agreements, contracts all necessarily involve bargaining and compromise within the framework of rules contrived by capitalists. The proper function of trade unions is not to participate with employers in ruling workers but, as far as they able, to impose the will of the workers on the employers. Vincent St. John, a Wobbly leader, expressed clearly the syndicalist attitude when he described how the Industrial Workers of the World operated among the miners in Goldfield, Nevada: ‘The minimum wage for all kinds of labour was $4.50 a day and the 8 hour day was universal. No committee was ever sent to any employers. The unions adopted the wage scales and regulated hours. The secretary posted the same on a bulletin board outside the union hall, and it was the LAW. The employers were forced to come and see the union committee.’ The only kind of contract syndicalists were prepared to consider was ‘the collective contract,’ conceived as part of a strategy of ‘encroaching control’; that is, a contract according to which workers within a factory or shop would undertake a specific amount of work in return for a lump sum, to be allocated among the work-group as the workers saw fit, and on condition that the employers abdicated their control of the productive process itself.

After a period of vigorous pursuit of the various tactics of direct action, the syndicalists envisaged that the workers in their unions would have gained sufficient power to make a successful General Strike possible. Such a strike, seen as the form which the proletarian social revolution would take, could not be planned in advance: the conditions had to be ripe for it. It would probably begin as a local strike or as a national strike confined to a single industry. Class solidarity would lead to its extension to other industries, and rapidly it would build up to a strike general in its dimensions. Symbolized as a mass ‘folding of arms,’ such a strike would constitute a total withdrawal by the workers of their consent to a continuance of the system of class servitude. The legitimacy of the bourgeois order would be finally shattered and in its place would emerge the new proletarian order based on the unions.

The syndicalist General Strike, as we now know, proved to be a dream. It was not, however, a dream that has simply faded. The syndicalist theory of revolution was never put to the test, except perhaps in Spain under the exceptionally difficult conditions of civil war. But long before that the syndicalist movement elsewhere had disintegrated, the Bolshevik Revolution marking the turning point. For many syndicalists who had not drunk deep the waters of anarchism, Lenin appeared to offer a superior strategy. Thus syndicalism was relegated to the list of history’s failures. The reasons for the movement’s failure are varied and complex, but one may be noted here. There was a basic weakness in the syndicalist strategy, a weakness that was revealed only as the movement developed. The strategy, as we have seen, assigned to the unions a dual role: the traditional role of acting as the workers’ defensive organizations, and the revolutionary role of transforming capitalism and constituting themselves the nuclei of the future socialist society. The idea was plausible in theory but, in practice, the two roles proved difficult to combine. To be effective as defensive organizations, the unions needed to embrace as many workers as possible — ideally, all of them. But the more they succeeded in doing this, the more diluted became their revolutionary membership — the mass of their members or potential members being, for commonsense reasons, more interested in the short-term aims than in the ultimate long-term aims. So, in practice, syndicalists found themselves faced with a dilemma, or painful choice. They had to choose between unions which were either large, basically defensive and reformist, or small, composed of convinced revolutionaries but, for that reason, relatively ineffective as defensive organizations. Given the democratic structure of union organization, there was a natural tendency to make the first of these two choices. In this connection, it is significant that even the Spanish CNT, although its leaders were committed revolutionaries, tended to become reformist in practice — some avowed anarchists going so far as to swallow their principles by joining the Republican Government.

But the most interesting thing about syndicalism is not why it failed but that it failed — and what that failure implies. In retrospect, syndicalism can be seen as the great heroic movement of the industrial proletariat. It was the first and, indeed, the only socialist movement to take really seriously Marx’s injunction that the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves. As we have noted, syndicalism sought to achieve the emancipation of labour (as the phrase then was) unaided by middle class intellectuals and politicians, and it aimed at establishing a genuinely working class conception of socialism and culture, free from all bourgeois taints. That it failed suggests that, whatever else they may be, the socialist revolutions that have occurred since the eclipse of syndicalism are not the proletarian revolutions that the ideologists of these revolutions would have us believe.

We are, indeed, living in a revolutionary epoch in which dramatic changes are taking place in the composition and structure of the ruling class. The changes are unevenly spread but in East and West, North and South, the emerging rulers, displacing the old capitalist class, are not the workers but the managerial bureaucrats whose privileges and power are based on their command of organizational resources and control of the major instruments of physical coercion. In the West the rule of this new class is being legitimized in terms of a rationalized corporate capitalism operating in a mixed economy; in Communist countries, the formula of legitimization is ostensibly socialist and the economy is state-owned and managed. But, in both, the rulers, like all ruling classes known in history, accord to themselves superior rewards and privileges; and the mass of humankind continue to toil and to spin for inferior rewards and for the privilege of keeping their rulers in a state to which they show every sign of becoming accustomed.

The new society, rationalized managerial capitalism or bureaucratic state socialism, is in many respects a more tolerable society than competitive capitalism. Given industrialization and modern economic techniques, mass poverty can be and is being abolished, at least in advanced industrial countries. For this reason, among others, in such countries the acute class divisions that marked 19th and early 20th century capitalism are becoming increasingly blurred and it is no longer possible to locate in the social arena a simple straight forward contest between two main classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. At the same time, the techniques of social control available to the rulers in the shape of the mass media of communications, mass political parties and sophisticated police forces have enormously increased their power vis-à-vis the ruled. All in all, the rulers of the emerging managerial-bureaucratic society possess historically unparalleled potentialities for maintaining a stable system of exploitation. There is only one major flaw in the system: its patent inability to solve the problem of war in an age when, for technological reasons, war has become a truly deadly institution.

The omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation has now clearly vindicated the anti-statism of the anarchists and the syndicalists. For modern war is a function of the state and of the state system into which humankind is politically divided. War can be defined as the use of armed force by states and by those who aspire to build or control states. From its origins some 6,000 years ago, the institution of the state has been harnessed with the institution of war. States have made wars and wars have made states — bigger and better states. Both have thrived together in unholy wedlock. Certainly, war is not an accidental or incidental institution. War is no aberration or sickness: all historical evidence confirms the judgment of Randolph Bourne that ‘War is the health of the state.’

The emerging new social order has modified the classical bourgeois state system; it is no longer a system of many balancing sovereign nation-states but rather a system of two superstates each surrounded by their satellites plus a group of uneasy non-aligned and relatively undeveloped states. The state system has been rationalized but not rationalized enough: for, within the framework of a state system, nothing short of one world state would be adequate to solve the problem of war in our nuclear age. And a world state — set up by mutual agreement — is just not on the political agenda of the great powers. But the reasons which led the capitalist ruling classes in their several states to engage in mutually destructive wars still operate to make possible, and perhaps almost inevitable, a third world war between states dominated by the managerial-bureaucrats. Such a war is likely to be humanity’s final war, a supremely ironical version of ‘the war to end all wars.’

The great tragedy of our epoch is the lamentable failure of the socialist movement, with its fine promise of universal peace and human brotherhood, to appreciate that an indispensable condition for achieving its objective was the liquidation of that quintessentially bourgeois institution, the modern sovereign state. Failing to appreciate this, the socialists after one hundred and seventy-five years of endeavour have succeeded not in making socialism but only in making socialist states. Not surprisingly, in this situation the socialist leaders have found what the anarchists and syndicalists predicted they would find: that it is impossible for socialists to accept the responsibility of governing states without thereby becoming defenders of them. The role that they occupy as state leaders inevitably impels them to act like state leaders, even to the extent, as in the case of the USSR, of making them subordinate, in the interests of the Soviet State, revolutionary Communist movements in other countries. That the Soviet leaders have not always and everywhere succeeded in this attempted subordination, with the result that in recent decades we have witnessed the development of national rivalries within the international Communist sector of the world, is no consolation. It makes only more obvious the fact that socialist revolutions within states, even socialist revolutions within all states of the world, would not solve the problem that now confronts humankind. If the American continent were to sink beneath the ocean tomorrow, the state system in the rest of the world would not prevent, for example, the possibility of war sooner or later between a Communist Russia and a Communist China. To think otherwise is to put far too high a value on the beneficent effects of a common ideology, to ignore the material interests that divide one state from another, and to overlook the disastrous increase in nationalist sentiment that is a feature of the contemporary world.

It may be that, from the point of view of sheer survival as a species, humanity has already passed the eleventh hour. In the present context of human affairs, Levine’s cryptic phrase, ‘We are all dead men on furlough’, takes on a new significance. In the contemporary crisis, there is only one sensible course open to those who wish to survive to see the year 2000 and beyond: to join the struggle to control, or better still to overthrow, the nuclear warlords, other militarists, the managerial-bureaucrats and political bosses in all states. This struggle in an inchoate form began in earnest in the late 1950s and, after waxing and waning, has been gathering momentum again in many countries. And it is no accident that the most determined participants in the anti-war movement have found themselves adopting the classic stance of the syndicalists: direct action of a basically nonviolent kind. A direct action movement always has been and always will be anathema to the rulers and would-be rulers of states.

For direct action involves a refusal to play the political game according to the rules laid down by our masters. It is a grassroots, do-it-yourself kind of action which recognizes implicitly if not explicitly the truth of what M.K. Gandhi called ‘voluntary servitude’: the fact that, in the last analysis, people are governed in the way they are because they consent to be so governed, the ‘consent’ ranging from active acceptance to sullen acquiescence.

When sufficient numbers of the governed — and ‘sufficient’ here may be less than a majority according to a simple head-count — can be persuaded to withdraw that consent and to demonstrate by their actions that they do not recognize the legitimacy of the rulers to act in their name, the government must either collapse or radically change its policies. When politicians and their pundits warn the participants in Civil Disobedience campaigns that they are undermining the foundations of social order, we should take heed. Civil Disobedience, pressed to its radical and logical conclusion, involves just that. All that we need to add is that it undermines the existing social order which has brought humankind to the edge of the abyss and prepares the way for a new social order in which power will be recovered and retained by the people.

There is thus a clear link between the classical syndicalists and the radical nonviolent direct actionists who constitute the cutting edge of the contemporary peace movement. The link is most obvious at the level of method or political style but it extends also to the level of values. What may be called anarcho-pacifism shares with anarcho-syndicalism both a negative value — rejection of the State as an institution — and a positive value — the construction, in the here and now, of an alternative culture and alternative institutions. Both are strongly internationalist or transnationalist in outlook, and both emphasize the need for a radical dispersion of social power. In connection with the latter, the old syndicalist slogan of ‘workers’ control of industry’ now re-appears as the more generalized demand for collective ‘self-management’ in all areas of social life.

Of course, the differences between the two movements are obvious too. Syndicalism was clearly and self-consciously a class movement of the industrial proletariat: the anti-war movement directs its appeal to the sane-minded in all classes and is thus populistic or universalistic. In terms of revolutionary potential, the contemporary movement may be judged of greater significance. The immediate issues involved are simpler and more dramatic than those raised by the syndicalists, and the crisis is more compelling. In struggling to resolve the present crisis, the new generation of social radicals cannot hope to revive a movement that, in its classical form, is now almost dead. But they would do well to learn the lessons of syndicalism and to draw inspiration by breathing in full measure the syndicalist spirit of militant direct action.

Geoffrey Ostergaard, 1984


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  1. […] a shell game. Nobody wins except the guys who spout this nonsense. To make real changes, here’s an alternative: The syndicalist strategy of revolution did, therefore, involve a struggle for social power — a […]

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