Syndicalism and Leninism

Spartacist, No. 19, November-December 1970

One surprising effect of the French May-June 1968 events has been a resurgence of anarcho-syndicalism within the U.S. left. In fact, the French events completely reaffirmed the fundamental thesis of Lenin and Trotsky: that the mass reformist (Stalinist or social-democratic) party of the working class can deflect even the strongest spontaneous impulses toward revolution, in the absence of a pre-existing revolutionary party with considerable authority in its own right. Precisely what was lacking to carry the French workers from general strike to taking power was revolutionary political organization—a vanguard party. But the New Left drew the conclusion that spontaneous localism is revolutionary and all centralized parties counter-revolutionary. The glorification of spontaneity fit in with classic New Left biases toward "doing one’s own thing," and variants of syndicalism became the form under which New Left radicals turned toward the working class.

For a syndicalist, the revolutionary process is supposed to take roughly this character: A wildcat strike creates a strong factory committee, which declares its independence from the official union and establishes e.g. the "liberated area of the Metuchen GE plant." When enough such "liberated industrial areas" exist they combine and the system is thus overthrown.

However, the existing relatively centralized union structure is not a plot by bosses and union bureaucrats, but a victory gained by long, bitter struggles. Most syndicalists look back to the thirties as the heroic period of U.S. labor, but fail to realize that the main object of the labor struggles of the thirties was the consolidation of atomized factory groups into strong national unions. The principal goal of the great 1936 GM strike was to establish a single union to bargain for the thirty-odd GM plants. Before this, all bargaining was done at the plant-wide level. Some plants were organized, others not; some had localized unions, others had unions with broader aspirations. It was easy for GM to play one plant off against another or to shift production if one plant was particularly troublesome. The auto workers instinctively recognized they would have to give up a degree of local autonomy to achieve any real bargaining power.

Even now, it is the existence of 14 different unions as well as many nonunion shops that has allowed GE to walk all over its workers for so many years. The growth of conglomerates has faced a number of unions with greatly reduced leverage.

Form and Content

The existence of strong working-class institutions under capitalism—unions or parties—necessarily creates the objective basis for privileged bureaucracy. A sure-fire cure for union bureaucratism is not to have unions at all! The corollary, of course, is that the workers are then completely at the mercy of the bosses. There is no mechanical solution to the problem of democracy. The only answer is an aroused and conscious working class which controls its own organizations, whether these be hundred-man factory committees, unions of hundreds of thousands or mass parties numbering in the millions.

Another important aspect of the syndicalist perspective is what form rank and file opposition should take: unionwide caucuses based on a comprehensive radical program, or attempts to undermine the centralized power of the bureaucracy through factory-level organizations? The goal of socialists in unions is not occasional defiance of the bureaucracy, but rather its overthrow to command the tremendous power of the organized working class for revolutionary ends. Strong factory committees and wildcats can be potent weapons in discrediting an incumbent bureaucracy and strengthening internal opposition. But such localized and episodic organizations are no substitute for all-union program-based caucuses, which alone can pose an alternative leadership to the bureaucracy as a whole.

As Marxists, we do not take a fetishistic attitude toward the existing jurisdictional union structure. A bureaucracy may be so entrenched that an opposition cannot gain the formal union leadership regardless of how much support it has. In such a case, an opposition may be forced to split from the official union. The NMU and Amalgamated Clothing Workers were created when militant oppositions split from the official unions. But such splits are justified only if the opposition has gained the unquestioned loyalty of an economically viable section of the work force, leaving the official union an empty shell, not when they mean the voluntary isolation of the most militant and conscious minority of workers, leaving their fellows still under the sway of the sellouts.

Another facet of syndicalism is the belief that the main activity of revolutionaries is to foment trouble in the shops, the more trouble the better. Its fallacy is demonstrated by recent events in Italy. The anarcho-Maoists have made deep inroads among Fiat workers, who have been systematically sabotaging production. Fiat’s giant Milan plant has been operating at 50 per cent of its normal capacity. One way Fiat has reacted is to purchase 30 per cent of Citroen, the French auto firm, and they are quite capable of closing down the Milan plant and shifting production elsewhere, out of Italy altogether, if it is more profitable. Thus militancy for its own sake simply leads to unemployment.

General Strikes and Reaction

A rational syndicalist might agree that atomized militancy can be self-defeating. He would counterpose the syndicalist panacea of a general strike. While a general strike always raises the question of embryonic dual power, it cannot overthrow capitalism in itself. The capitalist state must be smashed in its most concrete manifestation the armed forces. If the army is not defeated or won over politically, it will suppress the general strike.

One of the most important general strikes in history occurred in the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution. It was an explicitly political strike, designed to extract concessions from the imperialist powers. The strike was characterized by a division of labor whereby the Communist Party ran the strike and the national bourgeoisie commanded, the army, through Chiang Kai-shek. When the bourgeoisie reached its compromise with the imperialists, it suppressed the CP and Chiang’s army forced the strikers back to work at gunpoint. The Chinese revolutionaries learned the hard way that control of the labor movement is insufficient for revolution. (The Maoists draw the wrong conclusion—namely, that the labor movement is irrelevant as long as one has an army!) Political and military as well as economic organization is necessary. And winning over the soldiers, who are not subject to the discipline of the labor movement, requires a political party.

All general strikes create sharp political polarization, in which all sections of society come down for or against the strike. Even major industrial powers such as Japan, Italy and France contain large peasant populations which must be won over to the workers’ cause if the strike is to be successful. The demand for workers’ control of production is not sufficient; enlisting the support of the peasantry requires a program of e.g. reduced taxes and rents, changes in land tenure, easy agricultural credit, etc.—demands which can be put forward convincingly only by a revolutionary party capable of establishing a socialist government.

General strikes and serious industrial disruption create economic hardship for the entire population. It is certainly not true that all those not directly involved in a general strike will oppose it because of the hardships entailed; but such hardships must not be open-ended. Unemployed workers, welfare recipients, peasants and small shopkeepers will support a general strike if they believe it is a step toward creating a revolutionary government with a positive program to meet their needs. But if the strike appears interminable, self-centered and purposeless, these intermediate layers and backward sections of the working masses will turn to reaction.

This is demonstrated by the rise of Italian fascism. Following World War I, the Italian working class, under strong syndicalist influence, engaged in a tremendous but un0coordinated wave of industrial militancy—factory seizures, citywide general strikes. After a few years of this, demobilized soldiers and other unemployed workers, civil servants, small shopkeepers and farmers were prepared to support Mussolini’s "law and order" movement. It has been noted that fascism develops in periods when the labor movement prevents capitalism from operating smoothly but is unable to overthrow it. Syndicalism, to the extent it is successful, creates this very situation—a revolutionary situation without the strategy necessary for assuming control of the state—thus paving the way for the triumph of reaction.

The resurgence of radical syndicalism is a reaction against the economist and class-collaborationist policies of the trade union bureaucracy. But syndicalism is only economism in reverse: accepting the working class’ lack of organization, especially political organization—and refusing to recognize the dialectical character of the bureaucratized workers’ institutions—the contradiction between class-struggle and ruling-class elements which can be resolved only by principled intervention by revolutionaries to replace iron-fisted control by capitalism’s lackeys with working-class leaders armed with a real program of class struggle.

Posted: 22 September 2004