Kropotkin on Syndicalism and Anarchism

Happy birthday Kropotkin Claus!

Happy birthday Kropotkin Claus!

It’s that time of year again — no, not Christmas! It’s Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice! As in years past, I celebrate this date by posting something by Kropotkin. Given my recent focus on the debates and splits within the International Workers’ Association and the CNT, I thought it might be more useful to present some of Kropotkin’s views on syndicalism and anarchism. The following article was first published in Les Temps Nouveaux, the anarchist paper published by Jean Grave in Paris around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. This translation was first published by Black Flag in 1997 (a better version is included in Iain McKay’s anthology of Kropotkin’s anarchist writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital). Among other things, Kropotkin discusses the historical development of revolutionary syndicalism, and the role played by the International Workingmen’s Association of the 1860s-1870s, something I deal with in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I devoted an entire chapter of Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas to anarcho-syndicalism, and included additional anarcho-syndicalist material in other chapters, and in Volumes Two and Three.


Syndicalism and Anarchism

From all sides, people are always asking us, “What is Syndicalism and what is its relationship to Anarchism?”. Here we will do our best to answer these questions.

Syndicalism is only a new name for an old tactic in which the workers of Great Britain have taken successful refuge for a long time: the tactic of Direct Action, and the fight against Capital in the economic sphere. This tactic, in fact, was their favourite weapon. Not possessing the right to vote, British workers in the first half of the nineteenth century won important economic gains and created a strong trade union organisation through use of this weapon alone, and even forced the ruling classes to acknowledge their demands with legislation (including an extension of the franchise).

Direct Action has proved itself, both in achieving economic results and in extracting political concessions, to be a significant weapon in the economic arena.

In Britain, the influence of this idea was so strong that in the years 1830 to 1831 Robert Owen attempted to found one big national union, and an international workers organisation, which using direct action would struggle against Capital. Early fears of persecution by the British government forced him to abandon this idea.

This was followed by the Chartist movement, which used the powerful, widespread and partly secret worker’s organisations of the time in order to gain considerable political concessions. At this point British workers received their first lesson in politics: very soon they realised that although they backed political agitation with all means at their disposal, this agitation won them no economic advantages other than those they themselves forced the employers and lawgivers to concede through strikes and revolts. They realised how pointless it was to expect serious improvements to their conditions of life to come from parliament.

A Chartist Demonstration

A Chartist Demonstration

French workers came to exactly the same conclusion: the revolution of 1848 which had given France a Republic convinced them of the complete fruitlessness of political agitation and even of political victories; the only fundamental changes to workers conditions of life are those which the ruling classes are forced to concede by Direct Action.

The revolution gave the French another lesson. They saw how completely helpless were their intellectual leaders when it came to finding out about new forms of production which would secure for the workers their share and bring about the end of their exploitation by Capital. They saw this helplessness both in the Luxembourg Commission, which met between April and June 1848, and in the special Chamber chosen to study this question in 1849, on which over 100 Social Democratic Deputies sat. From this, they realised that workers themselves had to work out the main lines of the social revolution, on which they must travel if they are to be successful.

The use of direct action by Labour against Capital, and the necessity for workers themselves to work out the forms of economic organisation with which to eliminate capitalist exploitation: these were the two main lessons received by the workers, especially in the two countries with the most developed industry.

When, then, in the years 1864/66 the old idea of Robert Owen was realised and an international worker’s organisation was set up, this new organisation adopted both of the above fundamental principles. As the International Workers Association (IWA) had been brought into being by representatives of the British trade unions and French workers (mainly followers of Proudhon), who had attended the second World Exhibition in Paris, it proclaimed that the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves and that from then on the capitalists would have to be fought with mass strikes, supported internationally.


Following on from this, the first two acts of the International were two such mass strikes, causing enormous agitation in Europe and a salutary fright for the middle class: a strike in Paris, supported by the British trade unions, the other in the Genoese building trade, supported by French and British workers.

In addition, congresses of the International workers no longer bothered with discussing nonsense with which nations were entertained by their rulers in parliamentary institutions. They discussed the fundamental question of the revolutionary reconstruction of society and set in motion the idea which since then has proved so fruitful; the idea of the General Strike. As to what political form society would take after the social revolution, the federations of the Latin countries openly stood against the idea of centralised states. They emphatically declared themselves in favour of an organisation based on a federation of free communes and farming regions, who in this way would free themselves from capitalist exploitation and on this basis, on the basis of federal combination, form larger territorial and national units.

Both basic principles of modern Syndicalism, of direct action and the careful working out of new forms of social life, are based on trade union federations: from the beginning, both were the leading principles of the IWA.

Even them within the Association, however, there were two differing currents of opinion concerning political activity which divided the workers of different nations: Latin, and German.

The French within the International were mainly supporters of Proudhon, whose leading idea was as follows: The removal of the existing bourgeois state apparatus, to be replaced by the workers own organisation of trade unions, which will regulate and organise everything essential to society. It is the workers who have to organise the production of life’s necessities, the fair and impartial exchange of all products of human labour, and their distribution and consumption. And if they do that, we will see that there will be very little left for the state to do. Production of everything needed, and a more equitable exchange and consumption of products, are problems which only the workers can solve. If they can do all this, what remains to be done by existing governments and their hierarchy of officials? Nothing that workers can’t organise themselves.

But among the French founders of the International there were those who had fought for the Republic and for the Commune. They were insistent that political activity should not be ignored and that it is not unimportant for the proletarian whether they live under a monarchy, a Republic, or a commune. They knew from their own experience that the triumph of conservatives or of imperialists meant repression in all directions, and an enormous weakening of the power of workers to combat the aggressive politics of the capitalists. They were not indifferent to politics, but they refused to see an instrument for the liberation of the working class in electoral politics or successes, or in the whole to-ing and fro-ing of political parties. Accordingly, the French, Spanish, and Italian workers agreed to insert the following words into the statutes of the International: “Every political activity must be secondary to the economic.”

Among British workers there were a number of Chartists who supported political struggle. And the Germans, unlike the French, did not yet have the experience of two republics. They believed in the coming parliament of the German Reich. Even [Ferdinand] Lassalle [1825-1864]– as is now known – had some faith in a socialist Kaiser of the united Germany he saw rising.

Because of this, neither the British nor the Germans wanted to rule out parliamentary action, which they still believed in, and in the English and German texts of the same statutes inserted: “As a means, every political activity must be secondary to the economic.”

Thus was resurrected the old idea of trust in a bourgeois parliament.


After Germany had triumphed over France in the war of 1870-71 and 35,000 proletarians, the cream of the French working class, were murdered after the fall of the Commune by the armies of the bourgeoisie, and when the IWA had been banned in France, Marx and Engels and their supporters tried to re-introduce political activity into the International, in the form of workers candidates.

As a result, a split occurred in the International, which up to then had raised such high hopes among proletarians and caused such fright among the rich.

The federations of the Latin countries, of Italy, Spain, the Jura and East Belgium (and a small group of refugees from France) rejected the new course. They formed their own separated unions and since this time have developed more and more in the direction of revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarchism, while Germany took the lead in the development of the Social Democratic Party, all the more so after Bismarck introduced the universal right to vote in parliamentary elections following the victory in war of the newly established German Reich.

Forty years have now passed since this division in the International and we can judge the result. Later, we will analyse things in more detail but even now we can point to the complete lack of success during these 40 years of those who placed their faith in what they called the conquest of political power within the existing bourgeois state.

Instead of conquering this state, as they believed, they have been conquered by it. They are its tools, helping to maintain the power of the upper and middle class over the workers. They are the loyal tools of the Church, State, Capital and the monopoly economy.

But all across Europe and America we are seeing a new movement among the masses, a new force in the worker’s movement, one which turns to the old principles of the International, of direct action and the direct struggle of the workers against capital, and workers are realising that they alone must free themselves – not parliament.

Obviously, this is still not Anarchism. We go further. We maintain that the workers will only achieve their liberation when they rid themselves of the perception of centralisation and hierarchy, and of the deception of State appointed officials who maintain law and order – law made by the rich directed against the poor, and order meaning the submission of the poor before rich. Until such fantasies and delusions have been thrown overboard, the emancipation of the workers will not be achieved.

But during theses 40 years anarchists, together with these workers who have taken their liberation into their own hands, making use of Direct Action as the preparatory means for the final battle of exploited Labour against – up to the present day – triumphant Capital, have fought against those who entertained the workers with fruitless electoral campaigns. All this time they have been busy among the working masses, to awaken in them the desire for working out the principles for the seizure of the docks, railways, mines, factories, fields and warehouses, by the unions, to be run no longer in the interests of a few capitalists but in the interest of the whole of society.

It has been shown how in England since the years 1820-30, and in France following the unsuccessful political revolution of 1848, the efforts of an important section of the workers were directed at fighting Capital using Direct Action, and with creating the necessary worker’s organisations for this.

It has also been shown how, between 1866 and 1870, this idea was the most important within the newly established International Workers Association but also how, following the defeat of France by Germany in 1871 and the fall of the Paris Commune, political elements took the upper hand within the International through this collapse of its revolutionary forces and temporarily became the decisive factor in the worker’s movement.

Since this time both currents have steadily developed in the direction of their own programmes. Worker’s parties were organised in all constitutional states and did everything in their power to increase the number of their parliamentary representatives as quickly as possible. From the very beginning it could be seen how, with representatives who chased after votes, the economic programme would increasingly become less important; in the end being limited to complete the trivial limitations on the rights of employers, thereby giving the capitalist system new strength and helping to prolong the old order. At the same time, those socialist politicians who competed with the representatives of bourgeois radicalism for the capture of worker’s votes helped, if against their intentions, to smooth the way for a victorious reaction across Europe.

Their whole ideology, the ideas and ideals which they spread among the masses, were focused on the one aim. They were convinced supporters of state centralisation, opposed local autonomy and the independence of small nations and devised a philosophy of history to support their conclusions. They poured cold water on the hopes of the masses while preaching to them, in the name of “historical materialism”, that no fundamental change in a socialist direction would be possible if the number of capitalists did not decrease through mutual competition. Completely outside their observations lay the fact which is so obvious in all industrialised countries today: that British, French, Belgian and other capitalists, by means of the ease with which they exploit countries which themselves have no developed industry, today control the labour of hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The result is that the number of those people in the leading industrialised countries of Europe who live off the work of others doesn’t gradually decrease at all. Far from it. In fact, it increases at a constant and alarming rate. And with the growth of this number, the number of people with an interest in the capitulation of the capitalist state system also increases. Finally, those who speak loudest of political agitation for the conquest of power in the existing states fiercely oppose anything which could damage their chances of achieving political power. Anyone who dared to criticise their parliamentary tactics was expelled from international socialist congresses. They disapproved of strikes and later, when the idea of the General Strike penetrated even their own congresses, they fought the idea fiercely with all means at their disposal.

Such tactics have been pursued for a full 40 years, but only today has it become clear to everyone that workers throughout Europe have had enough. With disgust, many workers have come to reject them. This is the reason we are now hearing so much about “Syndicalism”.

Revolutionary syndicalist CGT paper

Revolutionary syndicalist CGT paper

However, during these 40 years the other current, that which advocates the direct struggle of the working class against Capital, has also grown and developed; it has developed despite government persecution from all directions and in spite of denunciation by capitalist politicians. It would be interesting to plot the steady development of this current and to analyse its intellectual as well as personal connections with the social democratic parties on the one hand, and with the anarchists on the other. But now is not the time for publication of such work, all things given it is perhaps better that it has not yet been written. Attention would be turned to the influence of personalities, when it is to the influence of the major currents of modern thought and the growth of self-confidence among the workers of America and Europe, a self-confidence gained independently of intellectual leaders, to which special attention has to be directed in order to be able to write a real history of Syndicalism.

All that we now have to say about it is the bare facts that completely independently of the teachings of Socialists, where working masses were gathered together in the main industrial centres, that these masses maintained the tradition of their trade organisations from former times, organising both openly and secretly, while all the time growing in strength, to curb the increasing exploitation and arrogance of the employers. At the same time that the organised working masses grew larger and stronger, becoming aware of the main struggle which since the time of the great French revolution has been the true purpose of life of civilised peoples, their anti-capitalist tendencies became clearer and more certain.

During the last 40 years, years in which political leaders in different countries have used the widest possible means to try to prevent all worker’s revolts and to suppress any of a threatening character, we have seen workers’ revolts extend even further, becoming ever more powerful, and workers’ aims expressed more and more clearly. Ever increasingly, they have lost the character of mere acts of despair; whenever we have contact with the workers, more and more we hear the prevailing opinion expressed, which can be summarised in the following few words: “Make room, gentlemen of industry! If you can’t manage to run the Industries so that we can scrape a living and find in them a secure existence, then away with you! Away, if you are so short sighted and incapable of coming to a sensible understanding with one another over each new turn of production which promises you the greatest instant profit, that you must attack without regarding the harmfulness or usefulness of its products like a flock of sheep! Away with you, if you are incapable of building up your wealth other than with the preparation of endless wars, wasting a third of all goods produced by each nation in armaments useful only for robing other robbers! Away. If from all the wonderful discoveries of modern science you have not learnt to gain your riches other than from the poverty to which a third of the population of the big towns and cities of our exceptionally rich countries are condemned! Away, if that is the only way you can run industry and trade! We workers will know better how to organise production, if only first we succeed in eradicating this capitalist pest!”

These were the ideas fought over and discussed in workers’ households throughout the entire civilised world; they provided the fertile ground for the tremendous workers’ revolts we have seen year after year in Europe and in the United States, in the form of strikes by dockers, rail workers, miners and mill workers, etc., until finally taking the form of the General Strike – soon growing into major struggles comparable with the powerful cycles of the force of nature, and next to which small battles in parliaments appear as a children’s game.

While the Germans celebrated their ever growing electoral success with red flags and torchlit possessions, the experienced Western people’s quietly set to work on a much more serious task: that of the internal organisation of the workers. The ideas with which these last peoples occupied themselves were of a much more important nature. They asked themselves, “What will be the result of the inevitable worldwide conflict between Labour and Capital?”, “What new forms of industrial life and social organisation will this conflict create?”.

And that is the true origin of the Syndicalist movement, which today’s ignorant politicians have just discovered as something new to them.

To us anarchists this movement is nothing new. We welcomed the recognition of syndicalist trends in the programme of the International Workers Association. We defended it, when it was attacked within the International by the German political revolutionaries who saw in this movement an obstacle to the capture of political power. We advised the workers of all nations to follow the example of the Spanish who had kept their trade union organisations in close contact with the sections of the International. Since this time we have followed all phases of the worker’s movement with interest and know that whatever the coming clashes between Labour and Capital will be like, it will fall to the syndicalist movement to open the eyes of society towards the tasks owing to the producers of all wealth. It is the only movement which will show to thinking people a way out of the cul-de-sac into which the present development of capitalism has given our generation.

It goes without saying that anarchists have never imagined that it was they who had provided the syndicalist movement with its understanding of its tasks with regard to the reorganisation of society. Never have they absurdly claimed to be the leaders of a great intellectual movement leading humanity in the direction of its progressive evolution. But what we can claim is to have recognised right from the beginning the immense importance of those ideas which today constitute the main aims of Syndicalism, ideas which in Britain have been developed by Godwin, Hodgkin, Grey and their successors, and in France by Proudhon: The idea that workers’ organisations for production, distribution, and exchange, must take the place of existing capitalist exploitation and the state. And that it is the duty and the task of the workers’ organisations to work out the new form of society.

Neither of these two fundamental ideas are our invention; nor anyone else’s. Life itself has dictated them to nineteenth century civilisation. It is now our duty to put them into reality. But we are proud that we understood and defended them in those dark years when social democratic politicians and pseudo-philosophies trampled them underfoot, and we are proud that we stand true to them, today as then.

Peter Kropotkin


Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

Bakunin: Beware Anarchist!

Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

This is my more detailed reply to René Berthier’s defence of his claim that the anarchist movements that emerged in the 1870s from the struggles and debates within the International Workingmen’s Association constituted some kind of break with Bakunin’s revolutionary socialism. My title is a play on Augustin Souchy’s autobiography, Beware Anarchist! A Life of Freedom. Souchy was a German anarcho-syndicalist and anti-militarist. His best known book in English is probably With the Peasants of Aragon, in which he describes the revolutionary collectives in the Aragon region of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.


Recently, René Berthier, or a friend of his, posted on my blog and other anarchist websites some comments directed against two of my recent posts: first, a selection of quotations from Bakunin in which he clearly identifies himself as an anarchist who advocated some form (or forms) of anarchy; and second, Max Nettlau’s 1935 biographical sketch of James Guillaume, in which Nettlau criticizes Guillaume’s claim that the true inheritors of Bakunin’s legacy were the revolutionary syndicalists. One of Nettlau’s main points was that Bakunin never limited himself to advocating syndicalist methods; he also advocated insurrection and the revolutionary commune. To Nettlau, Bakunin’s anarchism was broader than Guillaume’s revolutionary syndicalism, and cannot be reduced to it; although Bakunin’s anarchism contained syndicalist elements, it also contained much more than that.

It is neither “conventional, conservative” nor being “deprived of critical spirit” to criticize Berthier’s revisionist view of Bakunin, and his claim that there is some kind of break, conceptual, tactical or otherwise, between Bakunin and the anarchists who came after him. In fact, it is not even possible to argue that many of these anarchists came after Bakunin — they came with him during the conflicts within the International over the proper direction of European working class movements for self-emancipation. Malatesta clearly comes to mind, as do Reclus, Cafiero, and the Spanish anarchists who fought with Bakunin within the International against the Marxists and Blanquists and, outside of the International, against the bourgeois republicans, the Mazzinians, the neo-Jacobins, the reformists and the state socialists.

Now let’s deal with the Bakunin quotations that Berthier tries to discount in order to support his claim that there was a break between Bakunin’s “revolutionary socialism” and the self-proclaimed anarchist groups and movements of the 1870s (and beyond).

First, he corrects the Maximoff translation of a letter in Italian where Bakunin in fact referred to “anarchy” instead of “anarchism.” Fair enough. Then he emphasizes the use by Bakunin of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense, meaning disorder or chaos. This doesn’t have much bearing on whether Bakunin can be described as an anarchist, or whether the self-proclaimed anarchists of the 1870s advocated something so distinctive from what Bakunin advocated that Berthier can show that there was a “break” between them and Bakunin. Even if Bakunin only advocated “anarchy” in a negative sense, without giving it any positive content, that would still make him some kind of anarchist.

The first problem with the argument regarding Bakunin’s use of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense is that Bakunin regarded anarchy or disorder as something that was inevitable during revolutionary upheavals. Consequently, rather than seeking to suppress anarchy in this sense, as revolutionary governments inevitably sought to do, Bakunin invoked this kind of anarchy as a destructive force that revolutionaries could use to sweep away the existing social order. Anarchy, as destructive force, actually played, or should play, a positive role in the revolutionary process. It is both a destructive and a creative force. One cannot dismiss this aspect of Bakunin’s thought simply by referring to it as “questionable” Hegelian dialectics.

Looking at some of the quotations I relied on, one can see, sometimes in the same passage, how Bakunin refers to anarchy in both a negative and a positive sense, as a destructive and creative force, and as the end result of the revolutionary process. Let’s begin by focusing on three passages that Berthier singles out to show how mistaken I was to rely on them in order to show that Bakunin was an anarchist.

The first is the passage regarding “anarchy,” in the sense of disorder, leading either to enslavement or to the full emancipation of the people (Berthier simply ignores the latter part of the quotation, which I have italicized):

“The lack of a government begets anarchy, and anarchy leads to the destruction of the State, that is, to the enslavement of the country by another State, as was the case with the unfortunate Poland, or the full emancipation of the toiling people and the abolition of classes, which, we hope, will soon take place all over Europe.

Thus, anarchy as a destructive force can destroy a particular state, but that destruction can lead to two diametrically opposed things: it may ultimately result in another state enslaving the country in which the state has been destroyed, as in Poland, or it may lead to something altogether different, the complete emancipation of the people. Because Bakunin sought to avoid the replacement of one state by another, foreign or otherwise, his argument was that revolutionaries should harness the destructive power of anarchy not only to destroy the state but to ensure that the end result was not the reconstitution of the state, but its permanent abolition, the full emancipation of the people and the abolition of classes, a positive form of anarchy.

This is made clear by the second passage Berthier focuses on, the passage that I used as part of the title to my book on the First International and the origins of the anarchist movement:

“We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction. There is no doubt that this new life—the popular revolution—will in good time organize itself, but it will create its revolutionary organization from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.”

Berthier suggests that this quotation constituted a poor choice for the title to my book about the International because in it, Bakunin is supposedly using the word “anarchy” in a purely negative sense, as nothing more than “the chaos following the collapse of a social system.” But if one reads the passage carefully, Bakunin defines “anarchy” as the positive result of the revolutionary upheaval, “the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people,” not simply the means to create that “liberated life.” “Anarchy,” conceived as the realization of the liberated life of the people, springs from (i.e. is the result of) liberty, equality, the new social order and the force of the revolution itself. Besides lending itself as a catchy title to a book, this passage shows that Bakunin used anarchy in a positive sense to describe the result of a successful revolution, not simply in a more negative sense of either chaos or destructive force.

The third passage is the one where I relied on Maximoff’s translation of “anarchy” into “anarchism.” However, even after making that correction, the passage still constitutes a use by Bakunin of “anarchy” in a more positive sense, not in the sense of “chaos,” as Berthier claims:

“Outside of the Mazzinian system, which is the system of the republic in the form of a State, there is no other system but that of the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic — the system of Anarchy. It is the politics of the Social Revolution, which aims at the abolition of the State, and the economic, altogether free organization of the people, an organization from below upward, by means of a federation.”

What is the “system of Anarchy” of which Bakunin writes? It is the republic as a socialist commune and federation, the “free organization of the people… from below upward, by means of a federation.” This is a positive form of anarchy. But “anarchy” is also “the abolition of the State,” which is only a negative form of “anarchy” in the sense that destruction is the negation of something existing (the state), but the result is not something negative, either “anarchy” in the sense of chaos or a reconstituted state, but something positive, the federation of socialist communes.

Thus, a close examination of these passages shows that it is Berthier, not me, who “most of the time (not always, though) misinterprets what Bakunin really says.”

Consider also the very title to Bakunin’s last published work, Statism and Anarchy. Surely Bakunin was not arguing that the alternative to Statism was anarchy conceived as disorder, chaos and destruction.

Berthier also claims that “Bakunin felt really uneasy” in using the word “anarchist.” However, at another point he says instead that when Bakunin used the words “anarchy” or “anarchist,” he felt it “necessary to add an explanation, as if the concept was not immediately understandable by the reader.” This latter explanation makes more sense, and does not imply any kind of “uneasiness” on Bakunin’s part. At the time Bakunin wrote these various passages, largely between 1868 and 1873, the only “anarchist” with whom anyone would likely have been familiar would have been Proudhon, who distanced himself from his anarchist stance of the 1840s in his later works, for a variety of reasons (police censorship, pessimism regarding the prospect for positive social change, and so forth).

There were no anarchist movements, nor very many people who identified themselves as anarchists. Anarchist ideas were in the process of development by Bakunin and others. As most people would be unfamiliar with anarchist ideas, and would naturally assume that “anarchy” only meant chaos and disorder, it became necessary for the early revolutionary anarchists, including Bakunin, to explain what they meant when they described themselves as such.

Bakunin first described himself as an anarchist in the Italian paper, Libertà e Giustizia, in September 1867, when he distinguished himself from Pan-Slavists, describing them as “unitarians at all costs, always preferring public order to freedom”; whereas, Bakunin wrote, “I am an anarchist and prefer freedom to public order” (W. Eckhardt, The First Socialist Schism, p. 453, n. 47). And we see in the passages that I cited in my earlier post that Bakunin continued to identify himself as an anarchist in order to distinguish his views from those of his political opponents, whether Pan-Slavists, Blanquists, Marxists, Mazzini or other supporters of some kind of state power.

Since Bakunin’s death, other anarchists have continued to use the label to distinguish themselves from other revolutionaries, citing many of the same grounds cited by Bakunin: preferring freedom to “public order” (see for example Kropotkin’s essay, “Order,” in Words of a Rebel); advocating “anarchy” as both a method and as a goal (Malatesta, in his pamphlet, Anarchy, among many other writings); rejecting any participation in bourgeois politics; rejecting the state, even as a transitional power; rejecting a privileged role for the urban or industrial proletariat; and rejecting government by legislation and the so-called “rule of law.” This is what made these anarchists either Bakunin’s comrades in arms, for those who were his contemporaries, or his ideological successors.

I would like to conclude with some remarks regarding Berthier’s argument that the anarchists of the 1870s broke with Bakunin’s advocacy of a “pluralist” International. While Bakunin certainly opposed the International adopting a compulsory political program, he also lobbied incessantly for his own anarchist program, not to impose it on others, but to convince them to adopt it. His position is illustrated by this quotation from a fragment from the Knouto-Germanic Empire (Oeuvres, Vol. 6, p. 430):

“A political program has value only when, coming out of vague generalities, it determines precisely the institutions it proposes in place of those which it wants to overthrow or reform. Such is the program of Mr. Marx. It is a complete scaffolding of highly centralized and authoritarian economic and political institutions, no doubt sanctioned, like all despotic institutions in modern society, by universal suffrage, but nevertheless subjected to a very strong government, to use the expressions of Mr. Engels, the alter ego of Mr. Marx, the confidant of the legislator.

“But why is it precisely this program that is supposed to be officially introduced, necessarily, in the statutes of the International? Why not the Blanquists? Why not ours? Could it be because Mr. Marx invented it? That is not a reason. Or because the workers of Germany seem to accept it? But the anarchic program is accepted, with very few exceptions, by all the Latin Federations; the Slavs will never accept any other.”

It was around this time that Bakunin wrote the program for the Slav Section of the International in Zurich, which expressly accepted “the Anarchist revolutionary programme,” and called for the “abolition of all States.” There can be no question regarding Bakunin’s role in convincing many Spanish, Italian, Swiss, French and Russian members of the International to adopt an anarchist stance.

Furthermore, it was Bakunin himself who wrote the St. Imier Congress resolutions in September 1872 that:

“the aspirations of the proletariat can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labour and equality of all and absolutely independent of all political government… ”

Therefore, “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat,” and “any organization whatsoever of a self-styled provisional and revolutionary political authority for the purpose of ensuring such destruction can be nothing but another fraud, and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as any government now in existence” (reprinted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas).

From the outset, the anti-authoritarian International adopted an anti-statist position, making it difficult for any sections allied with Marx to participate, and it was Bakunin who authored the resolutions that helped to create that difficulty (of course, Marx and Engels put pressure on the social democratic Internationalists to boycott the anti-authoritarian International in any event). The resolutions at the 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International were not really any different in substance from the resolutions Bakunin wrote for the St. Imier Congress five years earlier. The Verviers delegates simply made it clear that in addition to rejecting the state and so-called “revolutionary” government, they also rejected, as had Bakunin himself, the socialist political parties that hoped to achieve political power.

The Belgians who had already moved toward a social democratic position, such as Caesar De Paepe, did not even attend the Verviers Congress, instead choosing to attend the Socialist congress in Ghent. However, in the Verviers region itself, many of the Internationalists continued to support an anarchist approach. The rejection of socialist political parties at the Verviers Congress simply confirmed what was already happening–the Internationalists who had decided to follow the electoral path no longer saw a need for an international association of workers, instead choosing to focus their energies on political activities within their own countries; whereas many of the anarchists who remained in the anti-authoritarian International, such as Malatesta and Kropotkin, continued to see a useful role for the International.

The anarchists did not drive De Paepe and other Belgians out of the International — rather De Paepe and many of the other Belgian Internationalists no longer believed that the International and working class organizations to which its members belonged, from resistance and mutual aid societies to cooperatives and trade unions, formed the “embryo” of the future socialist society. Rather, as De Paepe himself said at the 1874 Brussels Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, “the reconstitution of society upon the foundation of the industrial group, the organization of the state from below upwards, instead of being the starting point and the signal of the revolution, might not prove to be its more or less remote result.”

Consequently, De Paepe argued that “the proletariat of the large towns” would be compelled “to establish a collective dictatorship over the rest of the population… for a sufficiently long period to sweep away whatever obstacles there may be to the emancipation of the working class” (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 211). De Paepe and other Internationalists had adopted a view virtually indistinguishable from that of Marx, a view to which Bakunin was completely opposed (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 130).

Who remained in the International who agreed with Bakunin’s anti-statism, his rejection of participation in bourgeois politics, the creation of autonomous working class organizations that would provide the basis for workers’ self-management, and the use of insurrectionary means, as well as general strikes, to abolish the state and capitalism in order to create a socialist society based on equality and freedom for all? The anarchists. And it is simply untrue that the anarchists in the anti-authoritarian International were all anti-organizationalists who rejected anything other than affinity group forms of organization.

Even Paul Brousse, who argued against having any kind of coordinating centre for the anti-authoritarian International, was still an advocate of the revolutionary commune (incidentally, Bakunin agreed with the view that the anti-authoritarian International should not have a central coordinating agency, because “[s]ooner or later it would be without fail transformed into a sort of government” — ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 205). The majority of the Spanish anarchists continued to advocate a trade union based working class movement committed to achieving “anarchy” in a positive sense, as did many of the Italian anarchists, such as Malatesta, and some of the French anarchists (see Chapters 9 through 11 of ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’).

Robert Graham


IWA-AIT, the CNT and the November Bilbao Conference


The International Workers Association (IWA-AIT), an association of anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist trade unions founded in 1922, was intended to be a successor to the International Workingmen’s Association, which was created in 1864 by European workers, predominantly English and French, to provide for international solidarity between the workers of the world in their struggle against capitalism. The original (or “First”) International split in 1872 between the Marxists, who advocated the creation of “working class” political parties whose purpose was to “conquer political power,” and the anti-authoritarian, federalist and anarchist sections of the International that sought to abolish the state and replace authoritarian organization and capitalism with the free association of free producers. I discuss these developments in “We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement and included many of the most important documents relating to the anarchist wing of the International in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas


After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, creating the USSR, the renamed Communist Party sought in 1921 to enlist the world’s revolutionary trade unions in the so-called “Red International.” However, several union organizations of an anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist orientation, including the CNT in Spain, were concerned about the nascent Communist dictatorship and disagreed with any attempt to establish state socialism. These groups instead formed the IWA-AIT. The majority of the CNT now wants to “refound” the IWA, for reasons briefly summarized below. However, they are doing so in conflict with the IWA-AIT, which insists in the first statement below that the way to change the IWA-AIT is from within at a proper congress of the IWA-AIT, not by creating a new organization using the same name.



lt has come to our attention that various organizations have been invited to a conference ostensibly about “rebuilding the IWA” that is to be held in November in Spain. Due to the fact that this has caused some confusion as to the nature of said conference and to avoid any misunderstandings, we would like to clarify a few matters. —- The Congress of the lnternational Workers’ Association is to be held at the beginning of December in Poland. This Congress and only this Congress is where decisions about the proposals submitted to the Association can be made by the entirety of its member Sections. —- The conference being held in Spain, to which some organizations were invited, is not organized by the IWA, although it claims to be a “conference for the preparation of the IWA refoundation”. This initiative is thus a split where outside organizations are being invited to decide over the future of a federation to which they do not belong. It is held against the statutes, agreements and principles of the very federation it claims to be refounding and its aim is to exclude a dozen other member Sections from the process.

We refer to these facts since it has come to our attention that some comrades around the world may not have been informed to the nature of the conference and believe this is just an international “solidarity” event. However, the invitation sent to these organizations clearly state what the purpose is in the title. Therefore, those who are not members of the IWA Federation must really consider basic principles and ask how it is possible that anybody proposes to cut out the Members and give a voice to non-members.

The reason for holding this parallel conference before the legitimate one is to involve outside organizations in shaping the internal conflict. Instead of coming before the membership. Such a maneouvre is to make it look as if outside organizations are taking sides in an internal conflict and to place them on one side of a split. This is how the attendance of outside organizations will be treated, whether or not that was their intention.

With this clarification, we hope to inform the rank and file members of various organizations, who may not have seen the invitation or be aware of the circumstances. The IWA meets in December and it is at the Congress that the Member Sections must discuss and make decisions about the future of the federation, not any non-statutory meeting to which outside organizations are called to interfere and support the split faction. As stated before, time is needed to work things out in accordance with the procedures of our federation and we would appreciate it if outside organizations refrain from involvement in these matters which concern us directly and need to be resolved by ourselves.

We stress that in no way do we imply that any organizations avoid either the IWA or the split faction in matters such as international solidarity, which must continue even through this difficult time. It is possible that no resolution will be reached right away and that a longer conflict may exist, should the split faction continue to insist on acting in the name of the existing federation. The IWA has tried not to involve other organizations in these internal matters or ask them to take sides in the split. The split faction however has decided to do just that. We ask that people be cautious about such circumstances so that the situation not have new negative repercussions.

IWA Secretariat


CNT-ES: Open invitation to the Bilbao International Conference, 26-27 November, 2016 for anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist organizations

AIT/IWA Dear comrades: — CNT-E, FAU and USI are sections of the International Workers’ Association (IWA), founded in 1922. — We consider essential and urgent the existence of an active and inclusive anarcho-syndicalist International, which participates in and promotes struggles of workers worldwide and facilitates social improvements for them through this. Unfortunately, we have to admit that despite our best efforts the IWA has deviated from its principles and practices. Instead of concentrating on union activity, it has become bureaucratic, dogmatic and isolationist with regard to the labor movement. Considering this, we need to rebuild our International.

We believe that our International should restrict itself to general principles that express the commonalities that the members sections have, despite their different histories, traditions and social-economic situations. For us these general principles include:

– being an anarcho-syndicalist or revolutionary syndicalist organization as well as a bottom-up organization;

– not receiving economic funding from the state due to being a union or carrying out union activity;

– not supporting as an organization any electoral project, neither of a political party nor of individual candidates.

In addition, we believe that member sections should have at least 100 members nationally. We believe that smaller groups can carry out propaganda activities or local conflicts better and should concentrate on developing at the national level, before taking part in the complex decision-making process of an International. In order to support groups which have less than 100 members we will have the status “Friends”. We wish to help such groups grow and would be pleased to have them take part in our international solidarity campaigns.

At the same time, we do not presume to know or be aware of every other initiative worldwide that might fulfill these requirements. Therefore, we are issuing this open invitation to the International Conference, to be held in Bilbao (Spain) on November 26-27, 2016 during which we will be able to work towards a congress to rebuild an IWA. At the conference you will have a chance to present your organization and its work, get to meet other similar initiatives, assess the benefits of joining us in this endeavor, make contributions and proposals towards the congress agenda and the rebuilding of an IWA, and explore, in any case, the possibility of joint international actions and solidarity.

Even if your organization is not interested in joining this project on a more formal capacity, or ultimately decides not to, we still invite you to contact us to collaborate in international solidarity campaigns.

A proposal for the conference agenda and more practical info will be sent at a later date to those organizations that have expressed an interest in participating in it.

You can contact us on any of the following email addresses to express your interest, confirm your attendance, raise queries or concerns, etc.:






Emma Goldman on May Day

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Just found this great quote from Emma Goldman from a May Day rally in Toronto in 1939. I included several selections from Emma in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and began Volume Two with her thoughts on anarchism in the face of the Second World War. Thanks to Dave Lester for posting this.

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

May Day 1939

“Again we are celebrating the first day of May, marching in parades, singing songs, listening to pretty speeches delivered by politicians and labor leaders. But is this the purpose of the first of May?

“We are being told that here in Canada, prosperity is back again. The barons of industry are harvesting millions of dollars from the sweat and toil of the Canadian workers.

“Yes, our masters will grant us ‘democratic rights’ when it comes to elections. They know as long as we are using our “powerful” slips of paper nothing is threatening their privileges. But when we use direct action, your collective strength, and strike for higher wages, then our bosses tell us that we have overstepped our “democratic rights.

“Our strength lies in the field of economics, in the factories, in the workshops, in the mines, and not in the lobbies of parliament or the steps of city halls. Therefore, fellow workers, let us mark this first of May by the realization that organization in the economic field is our only effective weapon against war and its creator the state, against Capitalism and its offspring Fascism.”

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman 70th birthday


Anarchism and Working Class Struggles

The Robber Barons

The Robber Barons

Continuing with the installments to the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I describe how, in the 1880s and 1890s, anarchists renewed their involvement in working class struggles in Europe and the Americas, leading to the emergence of anarcho-syndicalism.


Anarchism and the Workers’ Struggles

The Haymarket Martyrs were part of the so-called “Black International,” the International Working People’s Association. The IWPA drew its inspiration from the anti-authoritarian International, and adopted a social revolutionary anarchist program at its founding Congress in Pittsburgh in 1883, openly advocating armed insurrection and the revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists by the workers themselves (Volume One, Selection 55). Following the example of the anti-authoritarian International of the 1870s, the IWPA sought to create revolutionary trade unions that would press for the immediate demands of the workers, for example the 8 hour day, while preparing for the social revolution. Around the same time, similar ideas were being propounded by the Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume One, Selection 36), and by anarchists involved in working class movements in Latin America.

But by 1894 in Europe, when Malatesta again urged anarchists to go to the people, many agreed with him that after “twenty years of propaganda and struggle… we are today nearly strangers to the great popular commotions which agitate Europe and America” (Volume One, Selection 53). One of those anarchists was Fernand Pelloutier (1867-1901). Sensing growing disillusionment among the workers with the electoral tactics of the socialist parties, some anarchists had again become involved in the trade union movement. Pelloutier argued that through participation in the trade unions, anarchists “taught the masses the true meaning of anarchism, a doctrine” which can readily “manage without the individual dynamiter” (Volume One, Selection 56). It was from this renewed involvement in the workers’ struggles that anarcho-syndicalism was born (Volume One, Chapter 12).

Pelloutier argued, as Bakunin had before him (Volume One, Selection 25), that revolutionary trade union organizations, unlike the state, are based on voluntary membership and therefore operate largely on the basis of free agreement. Any trade union “officials” are subject to “permanent revocability,” and play a coordinating rather than a “directorial” role. Through their own autonomous organizations, the workers will come “to understand that they should regulate their affairs for themselves,” and will be able to prevent the reconstitution of state power after the revolution by taking control of “the instruments of production,” seeing “to the operation of the economy through the free grouping,” rendering “any political institution superfluous,” with the workers having already become accustomed “to shrug off tutelage” through their participation in the revolutionary trade union, or “syndicalist,” movement (Volume One, Selection 56).

Also noteworthy in Pelloutier’s call for renewed anarchist involvement in the workers’ movement was his endorsement of anarchist communism as the ultimate goal of the revolutionary syndicalist movement. However, in France, after Pelloutier’s death, the revolutionary syndicalist organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), adopted a policy of nonaffiliation with any party or doctrine, including anarchism. CGT militants, such as Pierre Monatte, claimed that within the CGT all doctrines enjoyed “equal tolerance” (Volume One, Selection 60). The CGT focused on the means of revolutionary action, such as direct action and the general strike, instead of arguing over ideology.


This was in contrast to anarcho-syndicalist union federations, such as the Workers’ Federations of the Argentine Region (FORA) and the Uruguayan Region (FORU), which, as with Pelloutier, recommended “the widest possible study of the economic-philosophical principles of anarchist communism” (Volume One, Selection 58). The anarcho-syndicalists sought to organize the workers into revolutionary trade unions through which they would abolish the state and capitalism by means of general strikes, factory occupations, expropriation and insurrection. For the most part, their ultimate goal was anarchist communism, the abolition of wage labour, private property and the state, and the creation of free federations of worker, consumer and communal associations, whether in Latin America (Volume One, Selection 95), Russia (Volume One, Selection 84), Japan (Volume One, Selection 107), Spain (Volume One, Selection 124), or elsewhere.

Anarcho-syndicalists were behind the reconstitution of the International Workers’ Association (IWA/AIT) in 1922, with a membership of about two million workers from 15 countries in Europe and Latin America. At their founding Congress, they explicitly endorsed “libertarian communism” as their goal and rejected any “form of statism, even the so-called ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’,” because dictatorship “will always be the creator of new monopolies and new privileges” (Volume One, Selection 114).


Anarchists who sought to work within revolutionary working class organizations or popular movements adopted different approaches regarding the proper relationship between their anarchist ideals and these broader based social movements. Some, such as Amadée Dunois (1878-1945), argued that anarchists needed their own organizations to coordinate their activities, to support their work within the trade unions and to spread their ideas, infusing the workers’ organizations “with the anarchist spirit” (Dunois, 1907). This model of dual organization was similar to what Bakunin had advocated during the First International, when he urged his comrades in his revolutionary brotherhood, the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries, which adhered to Bakunin’s anarchist program, to join the International in order to steer it in an anarchist direction.

Antonio Pellicer Paraire (1851-1916), a veteran of the anarchist Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume One, Selection 36), acknowledged in an article from 1900 that, given the existing state of the workers’ movement, “parallel or dual organization has to be accepted,” with the anarchists maintaining their own revolutionary groups, but he argued that the primary focus must be on creating libertarian workers’ federations in which each worker is an equal and active participant, so as to prevent the development of a trade union bureaucracy and a de facto executive assuming control of the organization. Each organization must in turn retain “their autonomy and independence, free of meddling by other groups and with no one having methods, systems, theories, schools of thought, beliefs, or any faith shoved down his throat” (Volume One, Selection 57). Only through the self-activity of the masses can an anarchist society hope to be achieved.

In his posthumously published work, The Anarchist Conception of Syndicalism (1920), Neno Vasco (1878-1920), who was active in the Brazilian and Portuguese anarchist movements, warned of the dangers of self-proclaimed anarchist groups, “populated more by rebels than by anarchists,” seizing the initiative and forcing “emancipation” on the people by claiming “the right to act on its behalf,” instead of prompting the people “to look to its own liberation,” with “the persons concerned” taking matters “directly in hand.” For example, the provision of suitable housing “should be left to the tenants themselves,” a point later emphasized by Giancarlo de Carlo (Volume Two, Selection 18) and Colin Ward (1983), and “all the other production, transport and distribution services… should be entrusted to the workers working in each sector.”

Robert Graham



Kropotkin: The Action of the Masses (1890)

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Every once in a while one of my older posts starts generating traffic. The most recent example is Peter Kropotkin’s article on “Workers Organization.” In that article, now included in Iain McKay’s anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press, Kropotkin emphasizes the need for revolutionary working class organizations controlled by the workers themselves for any revolution to be successful. The following excerpts are taken from a later article by Kropotkin, “The Action of the Masses and the Individual,” in which he responds to a letter regarding increased strike activity among the workers in conjunction with May Day demonstrations. I included several selections by Kropotkin on anarchism and revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Many thanks to Iain McKay for making this translation available, and for providing the footnotes.

May Banner Jpeg

The Action of the Masses and the Individual

Our comrades are perfectly right to say [in their letter] that the May strikes are a consequence of general economic conditions. If the return of work to the mines and in the iron industry, and if dreadful poverty in the other trades did not exist, there wouldn’t have been any strikes at all, as there weren’t any on such a large scale ten years ago. But what our comrades ignore is that, outside all socialist organisations, right now, within the workers of all nationalities, an immense work to press on to a general strike is taking place. Democrats, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists, have absolutely nothing to do with it. – “We are overwhelmed by this movement” we were told, two years ago, by a Belgian socialist. In England, in a big city, at least socialists took hold of this movement. They were well received at first; but when people realised that they wanted to enlist it to an electoral aim, they threw them overboard.[1]

Whether it is enough to say that this international movement comes from America; [2] that it is taking form outside all [existing] organisation; and that we find ourselves faced with one of these facts that have always characterised the great popular movements – tacit understanding that becomes established outside newspapers, committees, agitators. A word put out in a workshop is enough and they tell each other: “So be it, see you on the 1st of May!” Then a worker goes from England to Austria, or from Austria to England, and expresses the same idea, and the idea – since it results from an economic necessity – is accepted straightaway.

Every strike of the last two years, in Belgium, in England, in Moravia[3], etc., etc., are due to this spontaneous spreading of the idea. If ever there was a movement anarchist by its essence and a propaganda essentially anarchist in its processes, it is this one. Because there is no secret – it is a tacit agreement that becomes established.

Our comrades from Geneva are mistaken to attribute the 1st May to the Paris Congress.[4] It was made absolutely outside of the Congress, against the will of the social-democrats, against the will of trade-union committees and despite indifference of socialists, anarchists and authoritarians. It is precisely for that reason that we attach significance to it.

In a Congress where Liebknecht[5] enjoyed royal rights, an unknown coming from Australia makes the proposal. The flabbergasted chiefs do not dare to renounce it, because the worker delegates – the unknowns – acclaim it unanimously. Then, the proposal is forgotten. The watchword of the socialist press is to not breathe a word of it. Socialists and anarchists treat it as a joke. Democrats oppose it. And meanwhile the workers spread the call [for a general strike] amongst each other: see you on the 1st of May. And fifteen days before the 1st of May the trade unionist, socialist and democrat leaders learn with dread that the working people will be on the street on that day. So they put on a brave face at this bad news, then they try to curb the demonstration and they end up joining it. But still, they expect a demonstration of no significance – and there is the whole of working London coming out of its hovels, a third of Vienna going to the Prater[6], the whole of Hamburg on its feet, and a general uprising of miners starts in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, etc.

In fact, we are persuaded that what the popular initiators of the movement wanted for the 1st of May was the general strike – as they had wanted it, a few years ago, in America. And we are persuaded that the idea of a general strike has only been postponed and that popular agreement will find in a year or two another date, unforeseen by those in power, to start the general strike.

* * *


We think that these facts are generally unknown and are the best reply to our comrades’ letter and for that very reason we had to set them out at length

“Individual initiative?” – Damn it! Let us practice it as much as possible! Let us not talk: let us act! But when we face a spontaneous movement of the masses – in front of an individual initiative of millions of workers – let us not put a spanner in the wheels of what is being done without us in the name of individual initiative, which will be excellent when it is taken but which, on its own, will not make the revolution. The strong point of individual initiative is to awake the spirit of revolt in the masses – because without the masses, no revolution. But once the masses awaken, once they move and descend onto the street, at the risk of sleeping that night on the barricades (it was the idea in Vienna), where does individual initiative have to go?

The answer is obvious – Where the masses are! And on the very day when the masses arrange to meet up! For us, it is absolutely obvious that in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, in Barcelona, in Valencia and elsewhere, those amongst the workers who really have some individual initiative and who wait for the watchword from the anarchists no more than from the democrats, told themselves: “While the troops are in Vienna or in Madrid, we will start the revolution here, in Moravia, in Barcelona or in Bilbao. And we will do it precisely on the 1st of May (or rather on the 2nd of May) whilst the troops are still in Vienna or in Madrid, and not on the 15th of May or on the 15th of June, when they will be back in our provinces”.

They have not been supported, precisely because the initiative was lacking elsewhere.

As for the arrests of anarchists – it is time to anticipate them in advance. Every time there is agitation in the masses, wherever it is from, the government will arrest anarchists – if they do not take precautions. That will take place before the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution. We need only to remember Marat[7] and so many others, less known, who were forced to live in cellars right in the middle of 1793, while aristocrats were guillotined by the dozens. Anarchists will be arrested because – sometimes wrongly, but most often rightly – governments will tell themselves this: “When the people are in the street and that individual initiative is lacking amongst these masses marching to storm society, it is from the anarchists that the initiative of a movement will be able to come, not from the legalists”.

And, let us note, that it will be absolutely the same thing during the revolution itself, as long as the revolution, in its development, has not reached the anarchist phase. Therefore, let us not speak of it.

* * *


Let us also add that if, on the day of a large popular demonstration, a movement in a big city hardly ever takes place, it is always a few days after such a demonstration that the movement starts. We counted ourselves, we understood its strength, we were offended by the brutality of the police, we were enraged by the blood shed at a peaceful demonstration: the soldiers themselves are furious at the leaders who made them shoot women and children; and then, on a call that, once more, is born spontaneously in the masses – we prepare another demonstration. But, before that day, the revolution already breaks out.

In short, let us turn the question over and over as much as we like, but we cannot reach another conclusion than this one: “whether we are the partisan of individual action or action of the masses – and it is obvious that both are necessary – the man of action’s place is where the masses are. If he carries out an individual act; if he responds to a policeman’s kick with a pistol shot; if he rebels against such iniquity; if he extinguishes the fire in some working factory, or if he breaks its windows (as was done in Moravia); if he goes to prison for spreading some propaganda amongst the troops or if he carries out quite another act of individual courage – his act will only have more impact, since it was done in the eyes of the masses, openly and publicly, while the press will talk about it in all details, while every worker will talk about it in the workshop”.

It is so simple, and we are so certain that all revolutionaries are of the same opinion, that there can only be debate on it by misunderstanding.

Peter Kropotkin

La Révolte, 24th of May 1890


[1] A reference to the 1889 London Dock Strike (see Kropotkin’s article “Ce que c’est qu’une gréve” [“What a Strike is”], La Révolte, 7th of September 1889. (translator)

[2] A reference to the 1886 eight-hour day movement in America that called upon workers to strike on the 1st of May. The Haymarket event in Chicago – a police attack on a strike meeting, a bomb being thrown and subsequent framing and hanging of five Anarchists, was a part of this strike wave. (translator)

[3] Moravia was a historical country in Central Europe in the east of the Czech Republic and one of the historical Czech lands, together with Bohemia and Czech Silesia. (translator)

[4] A reference to founding congress of the Second International held in Paris during July 1889. This congress designated the 1st of May as an international holiday for labour to be marked by demonstrations and parades. It was inspired by the American Eight-Hour movement of 1886. (translator)

[5] Wilhelm Martin Philipp Christian Ludwig Liebknecht (1826-1900) was a leading German social democrat. Under his leadership, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) grew from a tiny sect to become the country’s largest political party. (translator)

[6] The Prater is a large public park in Vienna’s 2nd district (Leopoldstadt). (translator)

[7] Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) was one of the one of the most radical voices of the French Revolution. He was a vigorous defender of the sans-culottes and published the newspaper L’Ami du people (Friend of the People) which was renowned for its fierce tone and advocacy of political and economic rights for the working classes. He was Marat assassinated while taking a medicinal bath and became a revolutionary martyr for the Jacobins. Kropotkin quoted him favourably in his classic 1909 history, The Great French Revolution. (translator)

Kropotkin: Workers’ Organization (Part 2)



This is the second part of Kropotkin’s December 1881 article on workers’ organization, in which he argues that it is through their own organizations and direct action, particularly strikes, that the workers will develop the class consciousness and solidarity needed for them to abolish capitalism. This article will be included in Iain McKay’s forthcoming anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, and was recently published in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. The translation is by James Bar Bowen. I included several of Kropotkin’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and have posted many more on this blog, including his analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution and his conception of a post-revolutionary anarchist society.

direct action

Workers’ Organization, Part 2: Striking Against Capitalism

Le Révolté showed in the last edition that a party which proposes as its goal a Social revolution, and which seeks to seize capital from the hands of its current holders must, of necessity, and from this day onwards, position itself at the centre of the struggle against capital. If it wishes that the next revolution should take place against the regime of property and that the watchword of the next call to arms should necessarily be one calling for the expropriation of society’s wealth from the capitalists, the struggle must, on all fronts, be a struggle against the capitalists.

Some object that the great majority of workers are not sufficiently aware of the situation imposed upon them by the holders of capital: “The workers have not yet understood,” they say, “that the true enemy of the worker, of the whole of society, of progress, and of liberty is the capitalist; and the workers allow themselves to be drawn too easily by the bourgeoisie into fighting miserable battles whose focus is solely upon bourgeois politics.” But if this is true, if it is true that the worker all too often drops his prey in order to chase shadows, if it is true that all too often he expends his energies against those who, of course, are also his enemies, but he does not realise that he actually needs to bring the capitalist to his knees; if all this is true, then we too are guilty of chasing shadows since we have failed to identify those who are the true enemies of the worker. The formation of a new political party is not the way to bring the economic question out into the open. If the great majority of workers is not sufficiently aware of the importance of the economic question (a fact about which we anarchists remain in no doubt), then relegating this question itself into the background is definitely not going to highlight its importance in the eyes of the workers. If this misconception exists, we must work against it, not preserve and perpetuate it.

black cat

Putting this objection to one side, we must now discuss the diverse characteristics of the struggle against capitalism. Our readers of course realise that such a discussion should not take place in a newspaper. It is actually on the ground, among those groups themselves, with full knowledge of local circumstances and spurred on by changing conditions that the question of practical action should be discussed. In The Spirit of Revolt,[1] we showed how the peasants in the last century and the revolutionary bourgeoisie managed to develop a current of ideas directed against the nobility and the royals. In our articles on the Agrarian League in Ireland,[2] we showed how the Irish people managed to organise themselves to fight on a daily basis a relentless and merciless war against the ruling class. Taking inspiration from this, we must find the means to fight against the boss and the capitalist in ways appropriate to each locality. What may work perfectly in Ireland may not work in France, and what may give great results in one country may fail in another. Moreover, it is not through following the advice of a newspaper that groups of activists will manage to find the best ways to fight. It is by posing questions in the light of local circumstances for each group; it is by discussing in depth; it is by taking inspiration from events which, at any given moment, may excite local interest, and by looking closely at their own situation that they will find the methods of action most appropriate for their own locality.

However, there remains one tactic in the revolutionary struggle about which Le Révolté is willing to give its opinion. This is not because this is a superior method, or even less so, the only valid tactic. But it is a weapon which workers use in different contexts, wherever they may be, and it is a weapon which can be called upon at any time, according to circumstance. This weapon is the strike!

It is, however, even more necessary to speak of it today because, for some time now, the ideologues and the false friends of the workers have campaigned covertly against the use of the strike, with a view to turning the working class away from this form of struggle and railroading them down a more ‘political’ path.[3] The result of this has been that recently strikes have broken out all over France, and those who have inscribed upon their banners that the emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the workers themselves[4] are now maintaining a healthy distance between themselves and the struggle being undertaken by their brothers and sisters; they are also maintaining for themselves a distance from the subsequent privations suffered by the workers, be these in the form of the sabres of the gendarmes, the knives of the foremen or the sentences of the judges.

It is fashionable these days to say that the strike is not a way to emancipate the worker, so we should not bother with it. Well, let us just have a closer look at this objection.

Of course, going on strike is not, in itself, a means of emancipation. It is [only] by revolution, by the expropriation society’s wealth and putting it at the disposal of everyone that the workers will break their chains. But does it follow that they should wait with folded arms until the day of the revolution? In order to be able to make revolution, the mass of workers must organise themselves, and resistance and the strike are excellent means by which workers can organise. Indeed, they have a great advantage over the tactics that are being proposed at the moment (workers’ representatives, constitution of a workers’ political party, etc.) which do not actually derail the movement but serve to keep it perpetually in thrall to its principal enemy, the capitalist. The strike and resistance funds[5] provide the means to organise not only the socialist converts (these seek each other out and organise themselves anyway) but especially those who are not yet converted, even though they really should be.

In effect, strikes break out all over the place. But, isolated and abandoned to their own fate, they fail all too often. And, meanwhile, what the workers who go on strike really need to do is to organise themselves, to communicate among themselves, and they will welcome with open arms anyone who would come and offer help to build the organisation that they lack. The task is immense: there is so much work to do for every man and woman devoted to the workers’ cause, and the results of this organisational work will of course prove enormously satisfying to all those who do put their weight behind the movement. What is required is to build societies of resistance[6] for each trade in each town, to create resistance funds and fight against the exploiters, to unify [solidariser] the workers’ organisations of each town and trade and to put them in contact with those of other towns, to federate across France, to federate across borders, internationally. The concept of workers’ solidarity must become more than just a saying: it must become a daily reality for all trades and all nations. In the beginning, the International faced national and local prejudice, rivalry between trades, and so on; and yes – and this is perhaps one of the greatest services the International has done for us – these rivalries and these prejudices were overcome, and we really did witness workers from distant countries and trades, who had previously been in conflict, now working together. The result of this, let us not forget, was achieved by organisations emerging from and owing their very existence to the great strikes of the time. It is through the organisation of resistance to the boss that the International managed to gather together more than two million workers and to create a powerful force before which both bourgeoisie and governments trembled.

general strike

“But the strike,” the theoreticians tell us, “only addresses the selfish interests of the worker.” In the first place, it is not egotism which drives the worker to strike: he is driven by misery, by the overarching necessity to raise wages in line with food prices. If he endures months of privation during a strike, it is not with a view to becoming another petit bourgeois: it is to avoid dying of starvation, himself, his wife, his children. And then, far from developing egotistical instincts, the strike serves to develop the sense of solidarity which emerges from the very heart of the organisation. How often have we seen the starving share their meagre earnings with their striking comrades! Just recently, the building workers of Barcelona donated as much as half their scant wages to strikers campaigning for a nine-and-a-half hour day (and we should acknowledge in passing that they succeeded, whereas if they had followed the parliamentary route, they would still be working eleven or twelve hours a day). At no time in history has solidarity among the working classes been practised at such a developed level as during strikes called by the International.

Lastly, the best evidence against the accusation levelled at the strike that it is purely a selfish tactic is of course the history of the International. The International was born from strikes; at root, it was a strikers’ organisation, right up until the bourgeoisie, aided by the ambitious, managed to draw a part of the Association into parliamentary struggles. And, at the same time, it is precisely this organisation, by means of its local sections and its congresses, which managed to elaborate the wider principles of modern socialism which today gives us our strength; for – with all due respect to the so-called scientific socialists – until the present there has not been a single idea on socialism which has not been expressed in the Congresses of the International. The practice of going on strike did not hinder different sections within the International from addressing the social question in all its complexity. On the contrary, it helped it as well as simultaneously spreading the wider ideas among the masses.

The Spirit of Revolt

The Spirit of Revolt

Others have also often been heard to say that the strike does not awaken the revolutionary spirit. In the current climate, you would have to say that the opposite is true. There is hardly a strike called these days which does not see the arrival of troops, the exchange of blows, and numerous acts of revolt. Some fight the soldiers, others march on the factories; in 1873 in Spain, the strikers at Alcoy declared the Commune and fired on the bourgeoisie; [in 1877] at Pittsburgh in the USA, the strikers found themselves masters of a territory as large as France, and the strike became the catalyst for a general uprising; [7] in Ireland, the striking farm workers found themselves in open confrontation with the State. Thanks to government intervention, the factory rebel becomes a rebel against the State. Today, he finds ranged before him soldiers who will tamely obey the orders of their officers to shoot. But the employing of troops in strikes will only serve to “demoralise”, that is to say, to moralise the soldier: as a result, the soldier will lay down his arms and refuse to fight against his insurgent brothers.

In the end, the strike itself, the days without work or bread, spent in these opulent streets of limitless luxury and the vices of the bourgeoisie, will do more for the propagation of socialist ideas than all manner of public meetings in times of relative social harmony. Such is the power of these ideas that one fine day the strikers of Ostrau in Austria will requisition all the food in the town’s shops and declare their right to society’s wealth.


But the strike, we must be clear, is not the only engine of war in the struggle against capital. In a strike, it is the workers as a whole who are taking up the fight; but there is also a role for groups and even individuals; and the ways in which they may act and be effective can vary infinitely according to local circumstances and the needs of the moment and the situation. It would be pointless to analyse these roles here since each group will find new and original ways to further the workers’ cause as it becomes active and effective in their own part of the great labour movement. The most important thing for us to do here is to agree upon the following principles:

The goal of the revolution is the expropriation of the holders of society’s wealth, and it is against these holders that we must organise. We must marshal all of our efforts with the aim of creating a vast workers’ organisation to pursue this goal. The organisation of resistance [to] and war on capital must be the principal objective of the workers’ organisation, and its methods must be informed not by the pointless struggles of bourgeois politics but the struggle, by all of the means possible, against those who currently hold society’s wealth – and the strike is an excellent means of organisation and one of the most powerful weapons in the struggle.

If we manage over the course of the next few years to create such an organisation, we can be sure that the next revolution will not fail: the precious blood of the people will not be spilled in vain, and the worker, currently a slave, will emerge victorious from the conflict and will commence a new era in the development of human society based on Equality, Solidarity and Labour.

Le Révolté,  December 24, 1881

[1] L’Espirit de Révolté was one of Kropotkin’s most famous pamphlets and was initially published in Le Révolté between May 14 and July 9 1881 and was subsequently included in Words of a Rebel. Excerpts from the Nicolas Walter translation are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

[2] A reference to the Irish National Land League. (Editor)

[3] The Parti Ouvrier did not encourage strikes although they supported them once they had begun. (Editor)

[4] An ironic reference to first sentence of the “General Rules” of The International Working Men’s Association drawn up by Marx in 1864 (included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). Anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin agreed with the position and argued that Marx’s support for “political action” (electioneering) by political parties contradicted this fundamental position of genuine socialism. (Editor)

[5] Caisse de résistance (resistance funds) are strike funds, reserves set up by a union ahead of a strike or gathered from other unions and workers during a strike which are used to provide strike pay or for other strike-related activities. (Editor)

[6] Sociétés de résistance was a common term for militant unions within the libertarian-wing of the International Working Men’s Association. (Editor)

[7] A reference to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Editor)


The Russian Revolution: An Anarcho-Syndicalist Approach (1917)

The 1917 Russian Revolution

Russian anarcho-syndicalists regarded the February 1917 Russian Revolution as the beginning of the social revolution they had long worked for, pointing to the soviets, factory committees, peasant seizures of land and other examples of the self-activity and self-organization of the masses which they hoped would replace the Russian state machine and capitalist economic relations. In the following declaration from June 1917, when the Provisional Government was still embroiled in the First World War, the Petrograd Union of Anarcho-Syndicalists set forth their approach to revolution, with their ultimate goal being anarchist communism. They note the ongoing failure of the political authorities to deal with the economic collapse brought on by the war, and the need for the Russian people to resolve the crisis through their own direct action, a position similar to that taken today by anarchists in Greece, where the authorities continue to make the people pay for an economic crisis created by international capitalism.

Declaration of the Petrograd Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda

The present moment represents a turning point in the history of mankind. The world war, which has already been raging for three years, has revealed with striking clarity the total collapse of the foundations on which contemporary society rests. The clearest testimony to the downfall of the capitalist order is the popular revolution which has erupted throughout Russia and which continues to develop in the direction of a fundamental social upending. In addition, there is the ferment among the proletariat of other capitalist countries, which must sooner or later assume the proportions of a mass revolutionary upheaval. These historical events are of the first importance. They show that the advance guard of the international proletariat, which has been seeking a way out of the intolerable situation arising from the three year war launched by the imperialist bourgeoisie of the great powers, is suddenly faced with the prospect of a full scale social revolution, which hitherto seemed a matter for the distant future.

The need for basic social and economic reconstruction is now felt particularly keenly by the proletariat of Russia. The great disorganization of the economic life of the country, the complete bankruptcy towards which Russia is rapidly moving and which is unavoidable if the inviolability of capitalist forms is to be allowed to persist, requires the immediate organization by the working masses themselves of new forms of economic relations. No social reforms carried out from above by a bourgeois, semi-socialist or even completely socialist Provisional Government or Constituent Assembly can alleviate the economic plight which is growing worse each day. Popular organizations — organizations of the workers and peasants — must not rely on reforms from above but must undertake a direct and fundamental reorganization of contemporary social and economic relationships.

Such an organization is already present to a significant extent. On the very morrow of the overthrow of the house of Romanovs there began a feverish organization of labour at the grass roots level. The Anarcho-Syndicalists, having always set great hopes on the creative spirit of the masses and on their capacity for self-organization during a revolutionary situation, were not disappointed in their expectations. The whole expanse of Russia is now covered by an intricate network of popular organizations: soviets of peasants’, workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, industrial unions, factory committees, unions of landless peasants, etc., etc. And with each day the conviction is growing among the toiling masses that only the people themselves, through their own non-party organizations, can accomplish the task of a fundamental social and economic reconstruction.

The state has already been dealt its first crushing blow. It must now be replaced by an all Russian federation of free cities and free communes, by urban and rural communes united from the bottom up in local, district, and regional federations. Such a political reconstruction will provide a radical solution to the question of full autonomy for small territorial units.

It will also point the way to the solution of complex national questions, which could not be solved as long as the state — even if ‘democratic’ in allowing a measure of autonomy to the nationalities — was preserved. The soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies, expressing the political will of the masses, must take upon themselves the execution of this political reconstruction of the country on the basis of the widest introduction of federalism.

But the execution of a second and even more important task, that of a total economic reconstruction, must be left to other popular organizations better fitted for the purpose: industrial unions and other economic organizations of workers and peasants. The confiscation of the land, workers’ control over production and further steps towards the complete socialization of the land and the factories can be undertaken only by federations of unions of labouring peasants, industrial unions, factory committees, control commissions and the like in local districts throughout the country. Only an all-Russian union of these organizations of producers, around which will also be mobilized all able bodied elements from the parasitic and intermediary classes of the population, can be capable of reconstructing the whole economic life of the country on new foundations. And this process of fundamental economic reconstruction will develop only to the extent that the importance of political organizations declines while that of economic organizations of producers grows, organizations which can remove the useless political forms of human existence.

The social revolution, which the Russian urban and rural proletariat is working hand in hand to carry out, will be anti-statist in its methods of struggle, syndicalist in its economic content and federalist in its political tasks. Its triumph will thus herald the creation of a social system that will naturally and relatively painlessly evolve in the direction of the full realization of the anarchist communist ideal.

Closely related to the Anarcho-Syndicalist conception of the content and tasks of the Russian Revolution is our position on the question of the war. A durable peace among nations cannot be established from above by the imperialist governments. It can only be the result of a victorious uprising of the proletariat of all the belligerent countries, which will make an end to the predatory competition of the capitalists and prepare the way for the unity of free peoples. Thus the continuation and deepening of the revolution in Russia — its transformation into a social revolution — is a factor of enormous international significance. An ‘offensive’, allegedly launched with the aim of liberation, can only benefit the capitalists of both sides, who are interested in a ‘victorious’ conclusion of the war. It cannot benefit the people, who everywhere yearn for an end to war for all time as well as for the overthrow of the capitalist yoke.

The Anarcho-Syndicalists, now as well as before the overthrow of the autocracy, are well aware that ‘the main enemy is within your own country’, and that the slogan of domestic peace is equivalent to a surrender of all the gains won by the people to the counter-revolution. Only through the continuation and deepening of the Russian Revolution can the conditions be created for the kind of peace that will foster a revolutionary outbreak among the proletarian masses of Germany. Those proletarian masses are already freeing themselves from the noxious influence of the Social Imperialists [pro-war Social Democrats], who have been throwing the revolutionary internationalists in prison and subjecting them to every other form of persecution. Only the final triumph of the Russian Revolution will make possible an international revolution, and only the success of the international revolution can in turn secure the new social order in Russia.

The forms and nature of the activity undertaken by the Anarcho-Syndicalists in Russia flow logically from their conception of the content and tasks of the Russian Revolution. The Anarcho-Syndicalists do not form a separate political party because they believe that the liberation of the working masses must be the task only of workers’ and peasants’ non-party organizations. They enter all such organizations and spread propaganda about their philosophy and their ideal of a stateless commune, which in essence merely represents the deepening and systematization of the beliefs and methods of struggle put forward by the working masses themselves. Adopting the position that the basic purpose of any social upheaval must be economic reconstruction, the Anarcho-Syndicalists will apply their energies above all to work in those mass economic organizations which must carry out the reorganization of production and consumption on completely new lines.

June 4, 1917

Luis Andrés Edo: Redefining Syndicalism (1984)

Luis Andrés Edo (1925-2009) was very active in the anarchist resistance to Franco following the Spanish Civil War. He joined the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation, the CNT (Confederación  Nacional del Trabajo see Volume One, Selection 124) in 1941, at the age of 16, two years after Franco took over Spain. He was involved in various attempts to overthrow the Franco dictatorship, working clandestinely in Spain and sometimes from exile in France. He was imprisoned several times, and participated in the mutiny at the Model Prison in Barcelona in 1975. He recounts his experiences in his memoirs, La CNT en la encrucijada: Aventuras de un heterodoxo (Barcelona: Flor del Viento, 2006). In the following piece from 1984, Andrés Edo argues, echoing Maurice Joyeux (Volume Two, Selection 61), that there remains an important role for anarcho-syndicalist trade union organizations to play, as they can provide an ongoing structure that can serve as a revolutionary example and catalyst without absorbing other forms of anarchist organization and activity. Andrés Edo opposed attempts to turn the CNT into a broader based anarchist federation which would include cultural centres (ateneos), alternative lifestyle and other anarchist groups that emerged in Spain following the death of Franco in 1975, so that the CNT could remain focused on its role as a revolutionary trade union. He also opposed the “institutionalization” of the CNT (the participation of the CNT in the government controlled system of union elections and representation). In 2002, he published La Corriente (originally entitled El pensamiento antiautoritario), a collection of more theoretical essays that he had written during his many years of imprisonment. In his later years, Andrés Edo moved closer to Murray Bookchin’s then anarchist social ecology (Volume Two, Selections 48, 62 & 74), endorsing the concept of ecological communities based on popular assemblies. The following piece was originally published in Anarcho Syndicalisme et Luttes Ouvrieres (Lyon: Atelier de Creation Libertaire, 1985). The translation is by Paul Sharkey.

Luis Andrés Edo: Redefining Syndicalism (1984)

1. Anarcho-syndicalism defined

The anarchist discourse in support of the trade union option has thrown up some arguments of incontestable value as far as the struggles of the workers’ movement are concerned. The devising and propagation of anarchist models of action and organization (direct action, autonomy, the federalist principle, assemblyism, etc.) are contributions offered by militant anarchism and they evolved from within revolutionary labour currents.

Those contributions, taken on board by the structural phenomenon of syndicalism, have been acted upon time and time again, in accordance with their anarchistic content and despite the obvious difficulties inherent in the translation of theory into practice.

That is an undeniably true fact: however, the manifest incapability of anarcho-syndicalist organization to translate these insights into actions without doing injury to their anarchist content is equally a fact. So much so that within the trade union structures one finds a persistent phenomenon whereby these anarchist presentiments are subjected to “redefinition” and where the tendency is for them to be distorted and for the implications of them to be restricted to the narrow confines of the organization.

Repeatedly, even within an anarcho-syndicalist context, distorted notions such as “class union, and  syndicalism sufficient unto itself” have been peddled; these plainly and brazenly fly in the face of anarchist ideas.

Were those two notions to prevail, the anarcho-syndicalist structure would become the exclusive element of the anarchist revolution. And while the accomplishment of any such revolution in the absence of participation by the anarcho-syndicalist organizations is inconceivable, it is every bit as true that revolution can scarcely be achieved without participation by all segments of society toiling away on the fringes of the trade union sector in order to meet libertarian targets.

If the tendencies championing organizational autonomy from the system lapse into this adulterating “redefinition” generated by structures, the adulteration phenomenon takes an even more serious turn when the “redefinition” emanates from these other tendencies ready to embrace institutionalization of anarcho-syndicalism, as is currently the case in Spain where well-known militants with lengthy records as anarchists are beset by some sort of blight (the “institutional syndrome” laying Spanish civil society waste) and are championing institutionalization of the CNT [the participation of the CNT in the government controlled system of union representation]; at which point the “redefinition” turns into unacceptable adulteration.

Calm reflection upon all these contradictions leads us to suspect that any sort of definition limits perspective and that any structure is inclined to lead to a thoroughgoing, final, exclusive and closed “redefinition”…

It is our belief that the anarchist substance of syndicalism should not be feigned by a definition but that this substance should be discernible in the orientation and content of its action.

2. Trade unionism hits a brick wall

Since, following the Second World War, the System agreed to the most significant trade union demands (for social security, the right to work, company recognition of the union) which had been, up until the 1930s, partly but not universally acknowledged, all of the major trade union organizations have voluntarily remained integrated into the system as institutions essential to its proper running.

Furthermore, the process whereby collective bargaining is conducted being, especially in the industrial context, subject to regulation and codification and the ordinances of the governmental administration — endorsed in advance by the legislative authorities — it represents one of the most important, indeed most indispensable, factors in the continuance of capitalist exploitation. By accepting that negotiating process, the trade unions are facilitating the furtherance of the exploitation of workers.

By becoming institutionalized, trade unionism has lost its freedom of action and it believed that this might be replaced by supposed social security and employment.

“Arbitrary dismissal” (whereby the worker loses his right and guarantee to his job), the burgeoning “black economy” (whereby the bosses wriggle out of the payment of taxes destined for social payments to workers) and finally technological readjustment which preaches increases in the rate and volume of production and job cuts are, essentially, the factors that have led to the irresistible rise of a slide into insecurity of employment and social insecurity in the relations of production.

As may be seen from the process of rigorous integration, trade unionism loses its freedom of action as well as its chance to make a genuine defence of workers’ job security and  social security net.

That process of integration has thrown up an utterly irreconcilable and irreversible contradiction. In fact, the members of the trade union apparatus are rewarded by Capital and the State with a privileged status in comparison with the rest of the workforce and this is the start of a widespread process of making the workers subordinate to the trade union machine.

The workers’ very own structures (the trade unions) are thereby stripped of their role as protagonists.

The “machine” replaces the trade union movement and the trade union-organized labour movement’s revolutionary strand finds itself neutralized yet again.

It is against the backdrop of this fact that, undeniably, trade unionism as a revolutionary option has hit a brick wall, that we should analyze the role of anarcho-syndicalism, the only approach to workers’ action that can resist the charms of integration.

Here the first critical observation that needs to be made is that an anarcho-syndicalist organization would have at the core of its activity the escalation of trade union demands (broadening the social security net, lowering retirement age, reducing the working day, additional leisure time, extension of all benefits to victims of discrimination, etc.), that is, broadening and improvement of the application and operation of demands that have made a contribution towards greater refinement of exploitation.

So anarcho-syndicalism is caught in a trap: it cannot make progress in the direction of its goals of transforming society, it remains outraged by and opposed to integration, and at the same time it calls for the extension and escalation of demands which, objectively, have eased the integration of the trade union organized workers’ movement into the system…

The belief that the impasse of collaborationist trade unionism should open the way to anarcho-syndicalism is a mistaken one: the former’s loss of revolutionary élan triggers a chain reaction that damages the trade union movement as a whole.

But there is no reason to speak of trade unionism being in crisis unless the link is made to the general crisis afflicting all of the institutions and trends within civil society, a crisis that triggers that very same “chain reaction” and afflicts the entire body of society, not excepting anarchist organizations, bodies and currents.

Anarchist critiques of trade unionism should be asking whether that is the root cause of the revolutionary crisis or if its loss of élan is simply a side-effect of a wider crisis that also entails a crisis in anarchism.

3. Need for an anarcho-syndicalist structure

Despite the current impasse, despite the contradictions and shortcomings that have become evident within anarcho-syndicalist organization throughout its history, we must resolutely reject the idea of it being dismantled.

The emergence of diverse currents within anarchism has required and continues to require backboned, stable organization capable of serving all of the options emerging from within anarchism as a catalyst for action.

Of all the organizations that the movement has known, none serviced that need so well as anarcho-syndicalism. Wherever the anarcho-syndicalist discourse has not translated into an influential organization, anarchism has simply vegetated. True, the catalyzing action of the anarcho-syndicalist structure is being constantly called into question these days, but no discourse thrown up by the libertarian movement has proposed the creation of a structure with the capacity to fulfill this purpose. The organizational articulation of anarchist federations (which we are not opposed to, of course) cannot in any way be regarded as a substitute for that catalyzing function; at any rate, it has not thus far shown that it is.

Moreover, and by way of an answer to all who consider that there is no need for a structured organization, we need only refer to historical processes and current affinity-based social phenomena for proof of the extent to which anarchism is ineffective when it is afflicted by the absence of some organization capable of serving as a catalyst.

If anarcho-syndicalism’s structure no longer fits the bill, we will have to come up with some other sort of a structure, but the critics have yet to devise one. Which is why we believe we need to hold on to anarcho-syndicalist organization.

4. Prospects of anarcho-syndicalism

By dint of other potential definitions and affording a non-restrictive scope to influences and perspectives that may derive from trade union organization, one can think of a trans-structural and extra-trade union activity at odds with a simple, wholly structural view of trade union action.

In order to demonstrate the incompatible impacts of both positions, we shall refer to two (out of the many) historical phenomena:

1. July 19, 1936, when the army rose in rebellion in Spain and the CNT might not have been able to abort that rebellion but for its organizational structures: this was feasible (in Catalonia in particular) because it was flanked by segments of the people not affiliated to any structure, but who had been exposed to the CNT’s trans-structural and extra-trade union activity for several years;

2. From July 21, 1936 on, the representative bodies of the CNT were caught up in a frantic flurry of meetings, plenarias and plenos, so much so that the unions were unable to keep up this pace without serious operational difficulties; federalism ran out of control, leading to a gulf between the unions and the federal and confederal organs and this was to have a heavy impact on the CNT’s political approach. Thus was triggered intra-structural activity by representative organs which no doubt smoothed the way towards CNT participation in the government. In this particularly limited instance, an intra-structural phenomenon came to light, one to which all organizations are inclined when their representative bodies are no longer responsive to pressures from those whom they represent.

Today, more than ever, when trade unionism finds itself in an undeniable impasse, the anarcho-syndicalist structure must engage in some activity that is trans-structural, extra-trade union, and at all times counter-institutional.

A. Trans-structural

The basic, prime aim of anarcho-syndicalist activity must be to take a hand in the situation of non-institutionalized sectors (ones not part and parcel of some trade union structure) whose numbers are growing daily (the unemployed, new-style, fringe cooperatives, and ‘wildcat’ disputes involving workers, producer sub-groups discriminated against by the ‘black economy,’ etc.).

Paradoxical though it may seem, we must fight shy of playing a leading role geared towards absorbing all sectors and sub-sectors into anarcho-syndicalism; this should be a matter of free and voluntary choosing in which pressure should not be a factor.

B. Extra-trade union

Extra-trade union activity is a way of getting involved in the activities of social, cultural and fringe groups whose anti-authoritarian bent affords them a quasi-anarchistic outlook.

Establishing non-structural, concerted action relations with such movements while rejecting the wrong-headed notion (seen in Spain in 1976-1977) of an “all-embracing CNT”, i.e. a structure wherein there would be room, alongside trade unions, for ateneos, collectives, groups and communes, etc. We look upon such absorption as inadequate for it would introduce into the anarcho-syndicalist organization a factor tending towards destructuring.

The structural and the a-structural should enjoy complete autonomy in their respective operations; the “federal compact” through which the anarcho-syndicalist organization grows cannot be applied to the a-structural development characteristic of such movements; the two formats can only be associated through some “action agreement”.

C. Counter-institutional

Anarcho-syndicalism’s presence and activity are needed as an ongoing pressure on integrated worker macro-sectors, breaking down the institutionalized patterns through which they evolve. The way to go is to intervene in campaigns, demonstrations, strikes, disputes and negotiations which overpower the institutionalized trade union “machinery” and organisms.

Any attempt to introduce qualitative initiatives into the institutional framework by agreeing to participate in its mechanisms is sheer illusion. The only qualitative initiative is to shatter the framework in question. The institutional company committee must be countered by “company delegates” and by representatives receiving their mandate from the workers’ assembly.

Workers’ assemblies (be they company or industrial sector based) can, it is true to say, on certain occasions take decisions at odds with the general accords of the anarcho-syndicalist organization; however recourse to the assembly is not simply a one-off exercise but also an ongoing process regulating and amending relations between the workers; in spite of the contradictions that can be thrown up by these situations, anarcho-syndicalism can get involved, with improved and broader prospects, in the institutional framework.


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