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Anarcho-Syndicalism (also referred to as revolutionary syndicalism[1]) is a branch of anarchism which views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as an appropriate vehicle for workers in capitalist society to defend themselves from what they regard as the inherent injustices of capitalism, and to develop ways to reclaim control over the conditions of their work. Anarcho-Syndicalism combines general defense of rights and advance of interests in the present with longer term strategies designed to facilitate development in workers of the class consciousness and capacity for self-activity necessary before capitalism and the state can be replaced with a new democratically self-managed society. Adherents thus see it both as a strategy for facilitating collective self-empowerment through worker self-activity in the present, and as a viable foundation for an alternative co-operative economic system in the future, whereupon production may be re-oriented towards satisfaction of human needs rather than profit.

Adherents of Anarcho-syndicalism seek to pursue these goals primarily by means of solidarity, direct action (meaning action undertaken without the intervention of third parties such as politicians, bureaucrats and arbitrators) and direct democracy, or workers' self-management. Since the end goal of Anarcho-Syndicalism is to replace the wage system, which adherents regard as wage slavery, with a regime of workers' control, Anarcho-Syndicalists aim to organise and engage in struggle in ways that respect the harmony between means and outcomes on the basis that the former determines the latter. It is for this reason in particular that Anarcho-Syndicalist praxis therefore generally focuses on the labour movement,[2] though there have been moves recently to broaden anarcho-syndicalism in the direction of a syndicalist intersectionality.[3]

Anarcho-syndicalists regard the state as a profoundly anti-worker institution, paradoxically agreeing with James Madison that the primary function of government is to 'protect the minority of the opulent from the majority.'[4] They understand the primary purpose of all states as being the defense of private property and therefore of economic, social and political privilege - which of course denies the mass of the population basic control over the conditions of their work and lives.[5] In contrast to other bodies of thought (Marxism–Leninism being a prime example), Anarcho-Syndicalists deny that there can be any kind of workers' state, and that any state that claims to act in the name of workers will invariably function to install and consolidate the power of a new elite at the expense of the workers, again on the grounds that means determine outcomes. Reflecting the anarchist philosophy from which it draws its primary inspiration, anarcho-syndicalism holds to the idea not only that power corrupts.[5], but that the age old struggle of the working class against wage slavery will only be brought to a successful conclusion directly, by the workers themselves.


Anarcho-syndicalists believe that only direct action — that is, action carried out by the workers themselves, which is concentrated on attaining a goal directly, as opposed to indirect action, such as electing a representative to a government position — will allow workers to liberate themselves.[6]

Anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers’ organizations—the organizations that struggle against the wage system, and which, in anarcho-syndicalist theory, will eventually form the basis of a new society—should be self-managing. They should not have bosses or "business agents"; rather, the workers alone should decide on that which affects them.[7]


The word syndicalism comes from the French word syndicat which means trade union (syndic meaning administrator), from the Latin word syndicus which in turn comes from the Greek word σύνδικος (syndikos) which means caretaker of an issue.


Hubert Lagardelle wrote that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon laid out the fundamental theories of anarcho-syndicalism, through his repudiation of both capitalism and the state, his flouting of political government, his idea of free, autonomous economic groups, and his view of struggle, not pacifism, as the core of humanity.[8]

The earliest expressions of anarcho-syndicalist structure and methods were formulated in the International Workingmen's Association or First International, particularly in the Jura federation. The First International, however, split between two main tendencies within the organization over the question of political, parliamentary action; the anarchist wing represented by Mikhail Bakunin and the socialist wing represented by Karl Marx. Marxists would form mass-based labour and social democratic parties throughout Europe (initially grouped around the Second International), with major strongholds in Germany and England. Some Marxists, notably Anton Pannekoek, would formulate positions remarkably close to anarcho-syndicalism through council communism (see main article Anarchism and Marxism).

In 1895, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in France expressed fully the organizational structure and methods of revolutionary syndicalism influencing labour movements the world over. The CGT was modeled on the development of the Bourse de Travail (labour exchange), a workers' central organization which would encourage self-education and mutual aid, and facilitate communication with local workers' syndicates. Through a general strike, workers would take control of industry and services and self-manage society and facilitate production and consumption through the labour exchanges. The Charter of Amiens, adopted by the CGT in 1906, represents a key text in the development of revolutionary syndicalism rejecting parliamentarianism and political action in favour of revolutionary class struggle. The Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (SAC) (in Swedish the Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation), formed in 1910, is a notable example of an anarcho-syndicalist union influenced by the CGT. Today, the SAC is one the largest anarcho-syndicalist unions in the world in proportion to the population, with some strongholds in the public sector.

The International Workers Association, formed in 1922, is an international anarcho-syndicalist federation of various labour unions from different countries. At its peak, the International Workers Association represented millions of workers and competed directly for the hearts and minds of the working class with social democratic unions and parties.

The Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo played and still plays a major role in the Spanish labour movement. It was also a decisive force in the Spanish Civil War, organizing worker militias and facilitating the collectivization of vast sections of the industrial, logistical, and communications infrastructure, principally in Catalonia. Another Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union, the Confederacion General del Trabajo de España, is now one of the largest unions in Spain.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), although not anarcho-syndicalist, were informed by developments in the broader revolutionary syndicalist milieu at the turn of the 20th century. At its founding congress in 1905, influential members with strong anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist sympathies like Thomas J. Haggerty, William Trautmann, and Lucy Parsons contributed to the union's overall revolutionary syndicalist orientation.[9]

Although the terms anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism are often used interchangeably, the anarcho-syndicalist label was not widely used until the early 1920s (some credit Sam Mainwaring with coining the term[10]). “The term ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ only came into wide use in 1921-1922 when it was applied polemically as a pejorative term by communists to any syndicalists…who opposed increased control of syndicalism by the communist parties.”[11] In fact, the original statement of aims and principles of the International Workers Association (drafted in 1922) refers not to anarcho-syndicalism, but to revolutionary syndicalism or revolutionary unionism,[12][13] depending on the translation.

Relationship with party politics

"Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. Just as the employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labor as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were observable in the workers' organizations, so governments also are always inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like have long existed, governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or to reinterpret them by juridical hair-splitting. Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace . Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution."

Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory & Practice, 1947[14]

The anarcho-syndicalist orientation of many early American labour unions arguably played an important role in the formation of the American political spectrum, most significantly of the Industrial Workers of the World. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not have a major labour-based political party.[15] This has not always been the case. In 1912, for example, Eugene Debs (a founding member of the IWW) polled 6% of the popular vote as the Socialist Party presidential candidate — a significant portion of the popular vote considering that this was 8 years before the adoption of universal suffrage in the U.S. Some political scientists would, in part, attribute the lack of an American labour party to the single member plurality electoral system, which tends to favour a two-party system. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Duverger's law.

Controversially, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo participated in the Spanish Republican Popular Front government in the Spanish Civil War. In November 1936, four anarchist ministers — Garcia Oliver, Federica Montseny, Joan Peiró, and Juan López — accepted positions in the government. This move was criticized by rank-and-file groups like the Friends of Durruti.

The French CGT leadership under Léon Jouhaux faced similar criticism from its own left-wing, after its close collaboration with Government during the First World War and, later, the Popular Front (France); However, unlike the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists, on both occasions the CGT stopped short of full Cabinet participation.

Notable theorists

Rudolf Rocker is one of the most influential figures in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. He dedicated himself to the organisation of Jewish immigrant workers in London's East End and led the 1912 garment workers strike. He outlined a view of the origins of the movement, what it sought, and why it was important to the future of labour in his 1938 pamphlet Anarcho-Syndicalism. In his article Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Rocker points out that the anarcho-syndicalist union has a dual purpose, "1. To enforce the demands of the producers for the safeguarding and raising of their standard of living; 2. To acquaint the workers with the technical management of production and economic life in general and prepare them to take the socio-economic organism into their own hands and shape it according to socialist principles." In short, laying the foundations of the new society "within the shell of the old." Up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, anarcho-syndicalist unions and organizations were the dominant actors in the revolutionary left.

Noam Chomsky, who was influenced by Rocker, wrote the introduction to a modern edition of "Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice". A member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Chomsky is a self-described Anarcho-Syndicalist, a position which he sees as the appropriate application of classical liberal political theory to contemporary industrial society: "Now a federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organization for an advanced technological society in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it to be a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will."[16]

Notable organizations

Criticisms and responses

Anarcho-syndicalism has been criticised as anachronistic by some contemporary anarchists.[17] Murray Bookchin in 1992 spoke against its reliance on an outdated view of work: Template:Cquote

Bookchin has said that it prioritizes the interests of the working class, instead of communal freedom for society as a whole; and that this view ultimately prevents a true revolution. He argues that in instances like the Spanish Revolution, it was in spite of the syndicalist-minded CNT leadership that the revolution occurred.[18]

Direct action, being one of the main staples of anarcho-syndicalism, would extend into the political sphere according to its supporters. To them, the labour council is the federation of all workplace branches of all industries in a geographical area "territorial basis of organisation linkage brought all the workers from one area together and fomented working-class solidarity over and before corporate solidarity."[19] Rudolf Rocker argues:


Thus, anarcho-syndicalism is not apolitical but instead sees political and economic activity as the same. Unlike the propositions of some of its critics, anarcho-syndicalism is different from reformist union activity in that it aims to obliterate capitalism "(Anarcho-syndicalism) has a double aim: with tireless persistence, it must pursue betterment of the working class's current conditions. But, without letting themselves become obsessed with this passing concern, the workers should take care to make possible and imminent the essential act of comprehensive emancipation: the expropriation of capital."[20]

While collectivist and communist anarchists criticize syndicalism as having the potential to exclude the voices of citizens and consumers outside of the union, anarcho-syndicalists argue that labor councils will work outside of the workplace and within the community to encourage community and consumer participation in economic and political activity (even workers and consumers outside of the union or nation) and will work to form and maintain the institutions necessary in any society such as schools, libraries, homes, etc. Murray Bookchin argues Template:Cquote

In popular culture

See also

Further reading

  • Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter-Power vol 1) by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt AK Press. (April 1, 2009). ISBN 978-1-904859-16-1
  • ISBN 1-904859-20-8
  • Flank, Lenny (ed), IWW: A Documentary History, Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9791813-5-1
  • Rocker, Rudolf (1938), [1]


  • Living Utopia, ("Vivir la utopía", Documentary-film from 1997 about Anarcho-syndicalism and Anarchism in Spain)



External links

  • A comprehensive list of Anarcho-syndicalist organizations
  • What is revolutionary syndicalism? An on-going historical series on anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism from a communist perspective
  • Anarcho-Syndicalism 101
  • Anarcho-Syndicalist Review
  • Syndicalism: Myth and Reality
  • by Dan Jakopovich
  • Anarcho-Syndicalism texts from the Kate Sharpley Library


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