In trying to transform the union into a vanguard political party, the Anarcho-Syndicalists perforce had to fail both as party and as union builders. If they tried to construct a regular union, their revolutionism remained in fact mere phrases, whether these phrases were repeated in ritual fashion or carefully pushed into the background. If they attempted actively to put forward their revolutionary minority principles, they destroyed the union and made of it an Anarchist propaganda sect.
How could the syndicats liberate humanity? Sabotage is a truly classic expression of Anarcho-Syndicalism. It is considered a form of the guerilla warfare of the exploited against their exploiters. Sabotage may take many guises. It may be the destruction of machinery and property; for example, the placing of spikes in logs so as to disable saw mills. It may take the form of telling the public that a given restaurateur, against whom there is a strike, is serving unsanitary food to his unsuspecting public. Sometimes it means idling on the job by the individual worker.
It is a limited and modified form of the individual terror of the early Anarchists, sabotage being in the main directed at the property of the employer rather than at the life of the political ruler. In both cases it generally substitutes individual action for mass action.
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In the trade union field it is particularly suited to the skilled worker. The guerilla warfare concept of the trade union Anarchists, coupled with their general irresponsibility, led them to the theory that no strike could be lost, since each strike meant so much more training for the workers. That workers could be wearied out and utterly demoralized by reckless, constant, guerilla warfare strikes, or that workers entered into strikes to win and into unions to improve their economic lot, never forcibly struck the Anarchists.
According to the French Syndicalists, strikes would be won by militancy and not by union treasuries. Strikes should be called often and should be sharp and short. Negotiations with employers must be minimized. Contracts were unnecessary since only the strength of the respective classes was the guarantee that classes so inimical to each other as labor and capital would live up to any truce effected.
Differing from the American Federation of Labor and craft unions generally, the French Syndicalists built their unions upon the basis of low dues and low initiation fees. The Anarcho-Syndicalist placed his main reliance on the general strike. In connection with this, two fundamental points must be stressed. First, the strike was to be a general strike, that is, not against a particular set of employers, but against all employers as a class. It therefore had to be directed against the State, which is the executive and general organ of the employers as a class; thus it became a political strike, a strike with political rather than with economic demands and motives.
It was a strike for freedom, for liberation, for the abolition of the State and the master class. This idea of the general strike meant that the workers must be prepared to strike, not only for their own petty and immediate material interests, but in solidarity with others for an ideal. The great emphasis laid upon solidarity and revolutionary ideals in Syndicalism naturally went hand in hand with the program of revolution through the general strike.
Such a peaceful general strike was the sole prospect envisaged by the skilled workers. It was the same sort of utopia about which the skilled Socialist workers in other countries were dreaming. This theory of the general political strike as a solution to all revolutionary problems resulted in several fatal errors being made by the Anarcho-Syndicalists. Since the Anarchists believed the time was always ripe for the overthrow of the State, a strong tendency existed to abuse the general strike, to call the workers out in solidarity and in sympathy, again and again.
This often resulted in abortive attempts or repeated efforts that wearied and exhausted the masses and only threw the country into a chaos which brought all the middle elements to the side of reaction.
The unfolding of the present revolution in Spain has brought to light many illustrations of this adventurism. This is precisely what happened in Italy in , the time of the march by the Fascists on Rome. The general strike on the railroads not having been entirely successful, the evacuation by all the militant workers of the key railway posts only facilitated the march on Rome and the seizure of power by the Fascists. The steady emphasis on strikes for solidarity and for political purposes tended to transform the union into an organ for revolution in which every member was presumed to be a revolutionist.
But this meant that the broad masses who entered unions, not for revolution, but for the day-to-day struggle, soon refused to remain in such revolutionary bodies or to abide by their policies. The transformation of the unions into the main organs for the revolution was likely to result in the collapse of the unions themselves.
The general strike idea of Anarcho-Syndicalism was developed in a period of political reaction flowing from the great rise of European and French capitalism at the time.
No organization of the workers of any importance sincerely believed that the proletarian insurrection was the immediate order of the day. Indeed, the whole tendency of the Anarcho-Syndicalists was to substitute the practical general strike for the impracticable barricades. To them the period for street barricade fighting was ended. During a general strike it was not necessary to control everyone since, owing to the division of labor in society, the stopping of a few wheels of industry must stop all.
It was argued further that such a general strike did not need money support, but was more apt to succeed in a business crisis than in a period of prosperity. Nor was much sacrifice or heroism involved, for such a strike could start lawfully, did not expose any individual to great danger, and was even aided by the cowardice of those who stayed at home.
The general strike would be able to throttle the economic life of the whole nation, for the quiet districts could not send food to the districts where the strike was active.
Syndicalism - an introduction
Soldiers could not be concentrated at every point, since the strike was general and to do so would greatly disperse the army. Developing still further their idea of strikes without undue social disorder and conflict, some of the Syndicalists also proposed, as an alternative method to the general strike, special strikes for shorter and shorter hours, until the capitalists finally lost all of their profits. Thus, just as some Socialists thought that Socialism could come by gradual legislative reforms, some Syndicalists conceived the end of capitalism as brought about by gradually intensified strikes and shortened hours of labor.
Both were utopian reformists. Against this concept of the general strike with folded arms, the French Guesdist Socialists carried on a bitter struggle. They pointed out that such a peaceful general strike was an illusion and that violence was inevitable.
Revolutionary syndicalism in Britain
Carried into practice, the general strike could lead only to insurrection and social revolution. France was not as yet ready for insurrection; the social revolution could be brought about not by economic groups, but only by political organizations. Eventually the realization spread that the general strike could not be peaceful, but by the twentieth century the French workers had fully recuperated from the effects of the Paris Commune and again were ready for the struggle. Thus they reaffirmed their faith in the general strike, regardless of its new meaning to them.
Nevertheless, the whole procedure, in all its implications, was neither clearly nor carefully worked out. A good illustration of the immaturity and amateurishness of these Syndicalists is given in the novel written by two prominent Syndicalists, E.
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Pataud and E. The scene opens with strikes for immediate demands; these are put down with great bloodshed by government troops. In order to force the government to punish those responsible for the massacres, a general political strike is ordered and breaks out suddenly.
By means of sabotage, and after boycotting the quarters of the rich and wearying the troops, the workers pass to the offensive, organize the distribution of food, and make a great drive for members. Then the workers seize the factories, return to work, and the State is abolished. The trade unions soon begin to run the factories and industries, and labor-notes are issued instead of money. Aside from the charming utopias pictured by revolutionary Syndicalists, Pataud and Pouget do raise several important questions pertaining to the program of Syndicalism.
Will the general strike come suddenly or after due preparation? Will it evolve from economic strikes or will it be political from the start? Are trade unions the organs of combat in civil war? Are they the instruments to organize the peasantry and the general population?
However, he believed that the working class had to be convinced of the importance of the object of the strike, the public had to be made sympathetic, and the strike must not be made a mask for violence. The best way was to call the general strike as an extension of the partial economic strike which was the normal action of the proletariat.
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A general strike for economic demands must not become side-tracked into an attempt at social revolution. Social revolution meant violence and civil war and for this the workers had to be prepared adequately. But, as a matter of fact, the great general strikes that were attempted in Europe from the start had political objectives and not economic ones.
Nor were they always prepared for adequately. The great general strikes in Belgium in , , were all for the purpose of extending the franchise, as was the strike in Sweden in The Russian general strikes of attempted to overthrow the Czar. The Barcelona general strike of aimed to stop the Spanish-Moroccan War. In other cases, as in Italy, in , the general strike resulted from the use of the military in savagely shooting down strikers engaged in economic and partial strikes.
The general strike, in and of itself, is no infallible weapon for revolution.
Related The New Unionism: An Introduction to Revolutionary Syndicalism
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