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Study notes

Anarcho-syndicalism

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Anarcho-syndicalism is based on the work of Georges Sorel (1847-1922), an important French syndicalist theorist.

The term syndicalism derives from the French word syndicat, meaning union or group. Syndicalism was a late 19th and early 20th century form of socialism that called for revolutionary trade unionism. During this period, anarcho-syndicalism attracted support in France, Italy, Latin America and the USA. It also gained significant backing in the Spanish civil war (1936-39) through the Confederacion Nacional de Trajabo, an anarchist union with a membership of about two million in the mid-1930s. Indeed, anarcho-syndicalism is the variant of anarchism that has come the closest to establishing a mass movement and challenging for power. Prominent anarcho-syndicalists include Émile Pouget (1860-1931) and Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958).

According to Sorel in Reflections on Violence (1908), syndicalism promotes class war to liberate workers and peasants from oppression by destroying the capitalist system. To achieve this, workers organise themselves into unions or syndicates based on specific industries or crafts. Initially, these trade unions act to protect their members by campaigning for better wages and working conditions. The unions also radicalise the workers through education and propaganda to prepare them to overthrow capitalism and take power themselves. Through this process, the syndicates pave the way for a revolutionary general strike – a so-called ‘revolution of empty hands’ (Sorel) - to bring down the capitalist order. Sorel views the general strike as a ‘political myth’, a symbol of the workers’ anger and power that has the capacity to mobilise a mass revolt.

For anarchists keen to connect with the wider population, two important elements of syndicalist theory are particularly appealing and help to shape anarcho-syndicalism. First, syndicalists regard all forms of parliamentary and liberal democratic politics as corrupting and futile. The workers should emancipate themselves through their own institutions, using direct action (e.g. strikes, boycotts, sabotage and personal violence) that culminates in a general strike to seize power. Second, anarchists view the syndicate or union as a template for their ideal future society based on decentralised and horizontal (non-hierarchic) features. Nevertheless, although anarcho-syndicalism has attracted sizeable support in some countries, its overall revolutionary impact, thus far, has been limited. Its political strategy lacks clarity, essentially being confined to a belief in the transformative effect of a general strike. Anarchist critics argue that anarcho-syndicalism’s focus on producers and class struggle provides a narrow vision of a free society, and its emphasis on trade union organisation can lead to short-term reformist objectives rather than revolution.

Main components of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The main components of anarcho-syndicalism are as follows:

Anarcho-syndicalists endorse collectivist anarchism's positive view of human nature but place greater emphasis on people's capacity for social solidarity. The importance they attach to trade union or syndicate organisation indicates that they regard work and creativity as central elements of the human condition. These elements can be fulfilled only if the oppressive state is abolished. For anarcho-syndicalists, people with similar occupations naturally join together in groups.

Anarcho-syndicalists strive for a stateless society because, in their view, both the state and capitalism are exploitative and oppressive. They argue that capitalism can be removed only if the state is forcibly overthrown. The workers can destroy the state by pursuing a general strike and engaging in mass demonstrations and acts of violence.

As collectivist anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists view society as a natural entity because humans are social animals. Anarcho-syndicalism advocates a decentralised society modelled on trade union or syndicate organisation where groups of workers in similar jobs form self-governing federated associations. This occupational solidarity provides the natural basis for an ordered stateless society.

Anarcho-syndicalist economic arrangements reject capitalism and private property. The workers’ federated associations exercise collective ownership over their own means of production and exchange goods and services in a mutually beneficial way based on the ‘real’ value of the work involved in making them.

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