Kropotkin: The 1905 Revolution in Russia, Parts Three & Four

Peter Kropotkin

Here are the third and fourth installments of Kropotkin‘s essay on the 1905 Russian Revolution. In Part Three, Kropotkin discusses how the 1905 Russian Revolution spread throughout the Russian empire among all the oppressed groups and classes, only to be met by severe state repression. Part Four, perhaps the most interesting part of the essay, shows how the tide again began to turn in favour of the rebels when workers renewed their involvement in the revolutionary movement in October 1905, leading to a country-wide general strike.

For Kropotkin and other anarchists, the October General Strike showed that the general strike advocated by anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists, but dismissed by Marxists as “general nonsense,” really was an effective “new weapon” in the revolutionary arsenal, “more terrible than street warfare,” which had now “been tested and proved to work admirably.” Also important for Kropotkin was how the general strike spread across the country largely spontaneously, being “entirely a workingmen’s affair,” rather than the work of organized revolutionary parties. For anarchists, the 1905 Russian Revolution was a vivid illustration of the kind of far-reaching social revolution, from the bottom up, that they had been advocating since the inception of revolutionary anarchist movements in the late 1860s.

Odessa Protest Against the Tsar October 1905

The 1905 Russian Revolution, Part Three

The peasants uprising alone, spreading over wide territories, rolling like waves which flood today one part of the country and tomorrow another, would have been sufficient to entirely upset the usual course of affairs in Russia. But when the peasant insurrection is combined with a general awakening of the workingmen in towns, who refuse to remain in the old servile conditions; when all the educated classes enter into an open revolt against the old system; and when important portions of the empire, such as Finland, Poland, and the Caucasus, strive for complete home rule, while other portions, such as Siberia, the Baltic provinces, and Little Russia, and in fact every province, claim autonomy and want to be freed from the St. Petersburg bureaucrats—then it becomes evident that the time has come for a deep, complete revision of all the institutions. Every reasoning observer, everyone who has learned something in his life about the psychology of nations, would conclude that if any concessions are to be made to the new spirit of the time, they must be made with an open mind, in a straightforward way, with a deep sense of responsibility for what is done—not as a concession enforced by the conditions of a given moment, but as a quite conscious reasoned move, dictated by a comprehension of the historical phase which the country is going through.

Repression in Russia 1905

Unfortunately, nothing of that consciousness and sense of responsibility is seen among those who have been the rulers of Russia during the last twelve months. I have told in my memoirs how certain moderate concessions, if they had been granted towards the end of the reign of Alexander II or at the advent of his son, would have been hailed with enthusiasm and would have paved the way for the gradual and slow passage from absolutism to representative government. Even in 1895, when Nicholas II had become emperor, it was not too late for such concessions. But it was also evident to everyone who was not blinded by that artificial atmosphere of bureaucracy created in all capitals, that ten years later—that is, in November last [1904]—such half-hearted concessions as a “Consultative Assembly” were already out of the question. The events of the last ten years, with which the readers of this review are familiar—the students’ affair of 1901, the rule of Plehve, and so on, to say nothing of the abominable blunders of the [Russo-Japanese] war—had already created too deep a chasm between Russia and Nicholas II. The January massacres widened that chasm still more. Therefore only an open recognition of the right of the nation to frame its own constitution, and a complete honest amnesty, granted as a pledge of good faith, could have spared Russia all the bloodshed of the last ten months. Every intelligent statesman would have understood it. But the cynical courtier, Bulygin, whom Nicholas II and his mother considered a statesman, and to whom they had pinned their faith, was not the man to do so. His only policy was to win time, in the hope that something might turn the scales in favour of his masters.

Alexander Bulygin

Consequently, vague promises were made in December 1904, and next in March 1905, but in the meantime the most reckless repression was resorted to—not very openly, I must say, but under cover, according to the methods of Plehve’s policy. Death sentences were distributed by the dozen during the last summer. The worst forms of police autocracy, which characterized the rule of Plehve, were revived in a form even more exasperating than before, because governors-general assumed now the rights which formerly were vested in the minister of the interior. Thus, to give one instance, the governor-general of Odessa exiled men by the dozen by his own will, including the old ex-dean of the Odessa University, Professor Yaroshenko, whom he ordered (on July 26) to be transported to Vologda! And this went on at a time when all Russia began to take fire, and lived through such a series of events as the uprising of the Musulmans, and the massacres at Baku and Nakhichevan; the uprising at Odessa, during which all the buildings in the port were burned;

The Potemkin Mutiny

the mutiny on the ironclad Kniaz Potemkin; the second series of strikes in Poland, again followed by massacres at Lodz, Warsaw, and all other chief industrial centers; a series of uprisings at Riga, culminating in the great street battles of July 28—to say nothing of a regular, uninterrupted succession of minor agrarian revolts. All Russia had thus to be set into open revolt, blood had to run freely in the streets of all the large cities, simply because the tsar did not want to pronounce the word which would put an end to his sham autocracy and to the autocracy of his camarilla. Only towards the end of the summer could he be induced to make some concessions which at last took the shape of a convocation of a state’s Duma, announced in the manifesto of August 19 [1905].

Part Four

Nicholas II

General stupefaction and disdain are the only words to express the impression produced by this manifesto. To begin with, it was evident to anyone who knew something of human psychology that no assembly elected to represent the people could be maintained as a merely consultative body, with no legislative powers. To impose such a limitation was to create the very conditions for producing the bitterest conflicts between the crown and the nation. To imagine that the Duma, if it ever could come into existence in the form under which it was conceived by the advisers of Nicholas II, would limit itself to the functions of a mere consulting board, that it would express its wishes in the form of mere advices, but not in the form of laws, and that it would not defend these laws as such, was absurd on the very face of it. Therefore the concession was considered as a mere desire to bluff, to win time. It was received as a new proof of the insincerity of Nicholas II.

But in proportion as the real sense of the Bulygin “Constitution” was discovered, it became more and more evident that such a Duma would never come together; never would the Russians be induced to perform the farce of the Duma elections under the Bulygin system. It appeared that under this system the city of St. Petersburg, with its population of nearly 1,500,000 and its immense wealth, would have only about 7,000 electors, and that large cities having from 200,000 to 700,000 inhabitants would have an electoral body composed of but a couple of thousand, or even a few hundred electors; while the 90,000,000 peasants would be boiled down, after several successive elections, to a few thousand men electing a few deputies. As to the nearly 4,ooo,ooo Russian workingmen, they were totally excluded from any participation in the political life of the country. It was evident that only fanatics of electioneering could be induced to find interest in so senseless a waste of time as an electoral campaign under such conditions. Moreover, as the press continued to be gagged, the state of siege was maintained, and the governors of the different provinces continued to rule as absolute satraps, exiling whom they disliked, public opinion in Russia gradually came to the idea that, whatever some moderate zemstvoists might say in favour of a compromise, the Duma would never come together.

Then it was that the workingmen again threw the weight of their will into the contest and gave quite a new turn to the movement. A strike of bakers broke out at Moscow in October last, and they were joined in their strike by the printers. This was not the work of any revolutionary organization. It was entirely a workingmen’s affair, but suddenly what was meant to be a simple demonstration of economic discontent grew up, invaded all trades, spread to St. Petersburg, then all over Russia, and took the character of such an imposing revolutionary demonstration that the autocracy had to capitulate before it.

Kharkiv strike meeting

When the strike of the bakers began, troops were, as a matter of course, called out to suppress it. But this time the Moscow workingmen had had enough of massacres. They offered an armed resistance to the Cossacks. Some three hundred men barricaded themselves in a garret, and a regular fight between the besieged workingmen and the besieging Cossacks followed. The latter took, of course, the upper hand, and butchered the besieged, but then all the Moscow workingmen joined hands with the strikers. A general strike was declared. “Nonsense! A general strike is impossible!” the fools said, even then. But the workingmen set earnestly to stop all work in the great city, and fully succeeded. In a few days the strike became general. What the workingmen must have suffered during these two or three weeks, when all work was suspended and provisions became extremely scarce, one can easily imagine; but they held out.

Moscow had no bread, no meat coming in, no light in the streets. All traffic on the railways had been stopped, and the mountains of provisions which, in the usual course of life, reach the great city every day, were lying rotting along the railway lines. No newspapers except the proclamation of the strike committees appeared. Thousands upon thousands of passengers who had come to that great railway center which Moscow is could not move any further, and were camping at the railway stations. Tons and tons of letters accumulated at the post offices, and had to be stored in special storehouses. But the strike, far from abating, was spreading all over Russia.

Once the heart of Russia, Moscow, had struck, all the other towns followed. St. Petersburg soon joined the strike, and the workingmen displayed the most admirable organizing capacities. Then, gradually, the enthusiasm and devotion of the poorest class of society won over the other classes. The shop assistants, the clerks, the teachers, the employees at the banks, the actors, the lawyers, the chemists, even the judges gradually joined the strikers. A whole country had struck against its government, all but the troops; but even from the troops separate officers and soldiers came to take part in the strike meetings, and one saw uniforms in the crowds of peaceful demonstrators who managed to display a wonderful skill in avoiding all conflict with the army.

The 1905 Revolution in Russia

In a few days the strike had spread over all the main cities of the empire, including Poland and Finland. Moscow had no water, Warsaw no fuel; provisions ran short everywhere; the cities, great and small, remained plunged in complete darkness. No smoking factories, no railways running, no tramways, no stock exchange, no banking, no theatres, no law courts, no schools. In many places the restaurants, too, were closed, the waiters having left, or else the workers compelled the owners to extinguish all lights after seven o’clock. In Finland even the house servants were not allowed to work before seven in the morning or after seven in the evening. All life in the towns had come to a standstill. And what exasperated the rulers most was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and re-establishing “order” by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably.

The panic in the tsar’s entourage had reached a high pitch. He himself in the meantime, was consulting in turn the conservatives (Ignat’ev, Goremykin, Sturmer, Stishinskii), who advised him to concede nothing, and Witte, who represented the liberal opinion. It is said that if he yielded to the advice of the latter, it was only when he saw that the conservatives refused to risk their reputations, and maybe their lives, in order to save the autocracy. He finally signed on October 30, a manifesto in which he declared that his “inflexible will” was:

(1)To grant the population the immutable foundations of civic liberty based on real inviolability of the person and freedom of conscience, speech, union, and association.

(2) Without deferring the elections to the state Duma already ordered, to call to participation in the Duma, as far as is possible in view of the shortness of the time before the Duma is to assemble, those classes of the population now completely deprived of electoral rights, leaving the ultimate development of the principle of the electoral right in general to the newly established legislative order of things.

(3) To establish it as an immutable rule that no law can come into force without the approval of the state Duma, and that it shall be possible for the elected of the people to exercise a real participation in the supervision of the legality of the acts of the authorities appointed by us.

On the same day Count Witte was nominated the head of a ministry, which he himself had to form, and the tsar approved by his signature a memorandum of the minister-president in which it was said that “straightforwardness and sincerity in the confirmation of civil liberty,” “a tendency towards the abolition of exclusive laws,” and “the avoidance of repressive measures in respect to proceedings which do not openly menace society and the state” must be binding for the guidance of the ministry. The government was also “to abstain from any interference in the elections to the Duma,” and “not resist its decisions as long as they are not inconsistent with the historic greatness of Russia.”

At the same time a general strike had also broken out in Finland. The whole population joined in supporting it with a striking unanimity; and as communication with St. Petersburg was interrupted, the wildest rumours about the revolution in the Russian capital circulated at Helsinki. Pressed by the Finnish population, the governor-general undertook to report to the tsar the absolute necessity for full concessions, and, the tsar agreeing with this demand, a manifesto was immediately issued, by which all repressive measures of the last few years, including the unfortunate manifesto of the year 1899, by which the Finnish Constitution had been violated, were rescinded, the Diet was convoked, and a complete return to the status quo ante Bobrikov was promulgated. What a pity for the future development of Russia that on this very same day an identical measure, establishing and convoking a Polish Diet at Warsaw, was not taken! How much bloodshed would have been saved! And how much safer the further development of Russia would have been, if Poland had then known that she would be able to develop her own life according to her own wishes!

Peter Kropotkin, November 1905

Kropotkin: The 1905 Revolution in Russia, Part One

Kropotkin circa 1900

In his 1904 preface to the Italian edition of Words of a Rebel, Kropotkin discusses the renewed militancy among European workers, and the embrace of the general strike as a means of revolutionary transformation. Soon thereafter, general strikes broke out, first in Poland, and then in Russian itself, as Polish and Russian workers rose against Czarist autocracy, leading to the 1905 Russian Revolution. Although the Revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, it proved but a prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution, which led to the final overthrow of the Czarist regime. In this essay, “The Revolution in Russia,” first published in the Nineteenth Century magazine, Vol. 58, No. 346 in December 1905, Kropotkin discusses the origins and development of the 1905 Russian Revolution from an anarchist perspective, emphasizing again the role of the general strike, as did Siegfried Nacht in his contemporaneous pamphlet, The Social General Strike, which was widely translated and distributed at the time. Due to the length of Kropotkin’s essay, which I do not believe has yet been posted on the internet, I will be presenting it in installments, starting, naturally enough, with Part One.

Kropotkin: The Revolution in Russia, Part One

1905 March on the Winter Palace

Events in Russia are following one another with that rapidity which is characteristic of revolutionary periods. Eleven months ago when I wrote in this review about the constitutional agitation in Russia, the Congress of the Zemstvos, which had timidly expressed the desire of having some sort of representative institutions introduced in Russia, was the first open step that had been made by a collective body in the struggle which was going to develop itself with such an astounding violence. Now, autocracy, which then seemed so solid as to be capable of weathering many a storm, has already been forced to recognize that it must cease to exist. But between these two events so many others of the deepest importance have taken place that they must be recalled to memory, before any safe conclusion can be drawn as to the probable further developments of the revolution in Russia.

On August 10, 1904, the omnipotent minister of the interior, Plehve, was killed by the revolutionary socialist Sazonov. Plehve had undertaken to maintain autocracy for another ten years, provided that he and his police were invested with unlimited powers; and having received these powers, he had used them so as to make of the police the most demoralized and dangerous body in the state. In order to crush all opposition, he had not recoiled from deporting at least thirty thousand persons to remote corners of the empire by mere administrative orders. He was spending immense sums of money for his own protection, and when he drove in the streets, surrounded by crowds of policemen and detective bicyclists and automobilists, he was the best-guarded man in Russia—better guarded than even the tsar. But all that proved to be of no avail. The system of police rule was defeated, and nobody in the tsar’s surroundings would attempt to continue it. For six weeks the post of minister of the interior remained vacant, and then Nicholas II reluctantly agreed to accept Sviatopolk-Mirskii, with the understanding that he would allow the zemstvos to work out some transitional form between autocracy pure and simple, and autocracy mitigated by some sort of national representation. This was done by the zemstvos at their congress in November of last year, when they dared to demand “the guarantee of the individual and the inviolability of the private dwelling,” “the local autonomy of self-administration,” and “a close intercourse between the government and the nation,” by means of a specially elected body of representatives of the nation who would “participate in the legislative power, the establishment of the budget, and the control of the administration.”

Modest though this declaration was, it became the signal for a general agitation. True, the press was forbidden to discuss it, but all the papers, as well as the municipal councils, the scientific societies, and all sorts of private groups discussed it nevertheless. Then, in December last, the “intellectuals” organized themselves into vast unions of engineers, lawyers, chemists, teachers, and so on—all federated in a general union of unions. And amid this agitation, the timid resolutions of the zemstvos were soon outdistanced. A constituent assembly, elected by universal, direct, and secret suffrage, became the watchword of all the constitutional meetings. This demand was soon as popular as the paragraphs of the charter were during the Chartist agitation [in England 1836-1848].

The students were the first to carry these resolutions into the streets, and they organized imposing demonstrations in support of these demands at St. Petersburg, Moscow, and in all the university towns. At Moscow the Grand Duke Sergei [Aleksandrovich Romanov] ordered the troops to fire at the absolutely peaceful demonstration. Many were killed and from that day he became a doomed man.

Things would have probably dragged if the St. Petersburg workingmen had not at this moment lent their powerful support to the young movement—entirely changing by their move the very face of events. To prevent by any means the “intellectuals” from carrying on their propaganda amid the workingmen and the peasant had been the constant preoccupation of the Russian government; while, on the other side, to join hands with the workers and the peasants and to spread among them the ideas of freedom and socialism had always been the goal of the revolutionary youth for the last forty years—since 1861. Life itself worked on their side. The labour movement played so prominent a part in the life of Europe during the last half-century, and it so much occupied the attention of all the European press, that the infiltration of its ideas into Russia could not be prevented by repression. The great strikes of 1896—1900 at St. Petersburg and in central Russia, the growth of the labour organizations in Poland, and the admirable success of the Jewish labour organization, the Bund, in western and south western Russia proved, indeed, that the Russian workingmen had joined hands in their aspirations with their Western brothers.

There is no need to repeat here what Father Gapon has told already in his autobiography—how he succeeded in grouping in a few months a considerable mass of the St. Petersburg workers around all sorts of lecturing institutes, tea restaurants, cooperative societies, and the like, and how he, with a few workingmen friends, organized within that mass and linked together several thousands of men inspired by higher purposes. They succeeded so well in their underground work that when they suggested to the workingmen that they should go en masse to the tsar, and unroll before him a petition asking for constitutional guarantees as well as for some economic changes, nearly seventy thousand men took in two days the oath to join the demonstration, although it had become nearly certain that the demonstration would be repulsed by force of arms. They more than kept word, as they came out in still greater numbers—about two hundred thousand—and persisted in approaching the Winter Palace notwithstanding the firing of the troops.

It is now known how the emperor, himself concealed at Tsarskoe Selo, gave orders to receive the demonstrators with volley-firing; how the capital was divided for that purpose into military districts, each one having at a given spot its staff, its field telephones, its ambulances… The troops fired at the dense crowds at a range of a few dozen yards, and no less than two to three thousand men, women, and children fell: the victims of the tsar’s fears and obstinacy.

Bloody Sunday, St. Petersburg 1905

The feeling of horror with which eyewitnesses, Russian and English, speak of this massacre surpasses description. Even time will not erase these horrible scenes from the memories of those who saw them, just as the horrors of a shipwreck remain engraved forever in the memory of a rescued passenger. What Gapon said immediately after the massacre about the viper’s brood of the whole dynasty was echoed all over Russia, and went as far as the valleys of Manchuria. The whole character of the movement was changed at once by this massacre. All illusions were dissipated. As the autocrat and his supporters had not shrunk from that wanton, fiendish, and cowardly slaughtering, it was evident that they would stop at no violence and no treachery. Since that day the name of the Romanov dynasty began to become odious among the workingmen of Russia. The illusion of a benevolent autocrat who was going to listen paternally to the demands of his subjects was gone forever.

Distrust of everything that might come from the Romanovs took its place; and the idea of a democratic republic, which formerly was adopted by a few socialists only, now found its way even into the relatively moderate program. To let the people think that they might be received by the tsar, to lure them to the Winter Palace, and there to mow them down by volleys of rifle fire—such crimes are never pardoned in history.

If the intention of Nicholas II and his advisers had been to terrorize the working classes, the effect of the January slaughter was entirely in the opposite direction. It gave a new force to the labour movement all over Russia. Five days after the terrible “Vladimir” Sunday, a mass strike broke out at Warsaw, and was followed by mass strikes at Lodz and in all the industrial and mining centers of Poland. In a day or two the Warsaw strike was joined by a hundred thousand operatives and became general. All factories were closed, no tramways were running, no papers were published. The students joined the movement, and were followed by the pupils of the secondary schools. The shop assistants, the clerks in the banks and in all public and private commercial establishments, the waiters in the restaurants—all gradually came out to support the strikers. Lodz joined Warsaw, and two days later the strike spread over the mining district of Dombrowo. An eight-hour day, increased wages, political liberties, and home rule, with a Polish Diet sitting at Warsaw were the demands of all the strikers. We thus find in these Polish strikes all the characteristics which, later on, made of the general strikes of October last so powerful a weapon against the crumbling autocratic system.

If the rulers of Russia had had the slightest comprehension of what was going on, they would have perceived at once that a new factor of such potency had made its appearance in the movement, in the shape of a strike in which all classes of the population joined hands, that nothing remained but to yield to their demands; otherwise the whole fabric of the state would be shattered down to its deepest foundations. But they remained as deaf to the teachings of modern European life as they had been to the lessons of history; and when the strikers appeared in the streets, organizing imposing demonstrations, they knew of no better expedient than to send the order: “Shoot them! ” In a couple of days more than three hundred men and women were shot at Warsaw, one hundred at Lodz, forty-three at Sosnowice, forty-two at Ostrowiec, and soon, all over Poland!

The result of these new massacres was that all classes of society drew closer together in order to face the common enemy, and swore to fight till victory should be gained. Since that time governors of provinces, officers of the police, gendarmes, spies, and the like have been killed in all parts of Poland, not one day passing without some such act being recorded; so it was estimated in August last that ninety-five terrorist acts of this sort had taken place in Poland, and that in very few of them were the assailants arrested As a rule they disappeared—the whole population evidently helping to conceal them.

Peter Kropotkin, November 1905

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

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.’

Siegfried Nacht: The Social General Strike (1905)

Siegfried Nacht (1878-1956) was active in the international anarchist movement around the turn of the century. In 1905, under the name of Arnold Roller, he published his influential pamphlet, The Social General Strike. Max Baginski and a group of anarchists circulated it at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World in Chicago in June 1905. Kôtoku Shûsui (1871-1911) obtained a copy when in contact with American anarchists in San Francisco and translated The Social General Strike into Japanese. Kôtoku then introduced Chinese anarchists to the pamphlet, and Zhang Ji (1882-1947) translated it into Chinese. In October 1905, there was a massive general strike in Russia which made a deep impression on workers and revolutionaries around the world, giving renewed credence to anarchist ideas, for it was the anarchists who had been advocating the general strike as a revolutionary weapon since the time of the First International (Volume One, Selection 27). The Marxist social democrats, taking their cue from a 1873 Engels’ pamphlet against Bakunin, “The Bakuninists at Work,” had been dismissing the general strike as “general nonsense” for years, as Nacht notes in his pamphlet. Kropotkin observed that “what exasperated the rulers most” about the general strike “was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and reestablishing ‘order’ by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably” (The Revolution in Russia, 1905: 280). Despite this practical vindication of anarchist ideas, Malatesta was careful to point out the limitations of the general strike during the debate on syndicalism at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Instead of “limiting ourselves to looking forward to the general strike as a panacea for all ills,” Malatesta warned, anarchists needed to prepare for the insurrection or civil war that would inevitably follow. For it is not enough for the workers to halt production; to avoid being forced by their own hunger back to work, the workers need to provide for themselves by taking over the means of production (Volume One, Selection 60). Nacht was one of the anarcho-syndicalist delegates at the Congress who spoke in favour of the general strike. He later emigrated to the United States, where he became a Communist fellow-traveller after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and later worked for the US department of Inter-American affairs. His brother Max Nacht, better known as Max Nomad (1881-1973), had also been an anarchist, then a follower of the early theorist of the “new class,” Jan Machajski, and then, surprisingly, a pro-Soviet socialist and later an unreliable historian and hostile critic of anarchism. A complete copy of the Baginski translation is now available from Corvus editions at http://www.corvusdistribution.org. Below I have reproduced Part 1.

SIEGFRIED NACHT

1. THE GENERAL STRIKE AS A WEAPON IN THE SOCIAL BATTLE

I. WHAT IS THE GENERAL STRIKE?

A new idea, a new weapon of the struggling proletariat, has pushed itself vehemently to the front and stands today on the bulletin of all discussions in the labour movement. This idea, which forces itself everywhere upon the international proletariat, is that of the “General Strike.” Until of late the general belief in the success of parliamentarianism has been unshaken among workingmen.

The events and the results of the political condition of recent years however, soon made it clear to the international proletariat that nothing could be gained in this way, and it was obliged to look around for a new fighting method. Even where parliamentarian socialism had developed most, and where with every additional election victory and quantitative increase—in Germany—its powerlessness was manifested, we hear, even in the reactionary camps of the social democratic party, voices calling for a new tactic.

The idea of the General Strike, which so far has largely been ridiculed and its propagators treated with slander and insult, has to be recognized now and is being discussed in all national and international labour congresses; and a member of the German social democratic party, Dr. Friedeberg, propagates this idea openly in the party.

The attitude of Social Democracy towards this idea, if it is not directly hostile, is in general however still very ambiguous; and all resolutions passed in its party congresses in regard to it, if they have not been directly hostile towards it, after long debates about the definition of the word, called only for a political “Mass-Strike” for the purpose of gaining certain single demands, but always refused to deal with the General Strike as a means and way to a social revolution.

The name “General Strike,” of course, admits of misunderstandings because it is applied to different general acts.

It is often used to designate the strike of all branches in one trade; for instance the General Strike of the miners, when helpers and hoisting engineers, etc., are all out. Then it is used as: General Strike of a city, i.e., “General Strike in Florence,” or a General Strike in a whole country or province for the purpose of gaining political rights, i.e., the right to vote, as in Belgium, or in Sweden.

The profoundest conception of the General Strike, however, the one pointing to a thorough change of the present system: a world social revolution; an entire new reorganization; a demolition of the entire old system of all governments—is the one existing among the proletarians of the Roman race (Spain and Italy). For them the General Strike is nothing less than an introduction to the social revolution. Therefore we call this General Strike, to distinguish it from General Strikes for higher wages, or for political privileges (political mass strikes), “The Social General Strike.” This conception of the General Strike will be dealt with in this treatise.

The General Strike idea has been opposed by the German workingman until now with the same idiotic phrases as the big-bellied bourgeois have used heretofore, by everlastingly re-chewing the tale of dividing all property, thus thinking to have made clear the nonsense of socialism, and at the same time proving only their own ignorance.

The “General Strike is general nonsense.” With this phrase the Social Democrats thought they could kill the General Strike idea.

When a discussion about the General Strike was permitted, the following ideas were always maintained: “The General Strike is a Utopia. It will never be possible to so thoroughly organize the proletariat that all workingmen will go on strike like one man; and if it were so well educated, and imbued with solidarity, and so well organized as to be able to declare a General Strike, then it would not need any General Strike; then it is the power in the country; then it may do anything it sees fit.”

Here we want to call attention to the fact that even with the best organization of the proletariat and the largest majority in the country and in Parliament, nothing can be done against the will of the Herrenhaus or Bundesrath , nothing against the will of the emperor, who has the whole army to support his will, while Parliament has nothing but paper scraps to defend itself against the bayonets of the soldiers.

The conduct and the result of the General Strike do not depend upon all workers laying down their tools. It would certainly be worthwhile to endeavour to educate all classes of workingmen so well that, on the day on which the General Strike began, the Proletariat of all countries would leave its factories and mines like one man, and through the expression of its united will throw off the chains of slavery. This ideal of propaganda will, however, in spite of its beauty always be a dream.

It was always the energetic and enthusiastic minority only that revolted against tyranny and oppression, thereby giving the initiative to the large, indolent masses who were dissatisfied and complained of their fate, but didn’t have the courage to revolt. It is quite a distance between a complaining dissatisfaction and open rebellion. In every revolution it was the force of the energetic minority that aroused the courage of the timid masses.

The same is observed in a strike. Although the labour unions as a rule represent only a minority of the workingmen, they always cause, organize, and lead the strikes of the unorganized masses. Often in this way a small minority goes on a strike, and during the strike the rest of the masses follow.

Often it happens that just through the strike the related industries and branches join in, spreading the strike over ever increasing territories and amongst ever growing masses of labourers.

The example of the strike is, in fact, suggestive and contagious to the masses.

It is therefore not of such great importance for the propagandists and followers of the general strike theory (as for instance the Spanish and French workers understand it) to get all the workers to lay down their tools at the same time, as it is to completely interrupt production in the whole country and stop communication and consumption for the ruling classes long enough to totally disorganize the capitalistic society, so that after the complete annihilation of the old system the working people can take possession through its labour unions of all the means of production, mines, houses, the land; in short: of all the economic factors.