The Industrial and Social Foundations of Syndicalism

Posted on Updated on

This is an extract of a speech called “(De)constructing Counter-power” given at five universities in Canada in March 2010 by Michael Schmidt, co-author with Lucien van der Walt of Counter-Power, a challenging new two-volume study of anarchist theory, tactics, strategy and history. The first, theoretical volume, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, USA, 2009), has received largely constructive reviews from the global activist, academic and labour press (see Schmidt was kindly hosted by the Wilfrid Laurier University, the Centre for the Study of Theory & Criticism at the University of Western Ontario, McMaster University, the University of Ottawa, and the University of Toronto. His talks were warmly acclaimed – not without comradely criticism – and his audiences consisted in part of anarchist-communists of ZACF sister organisations Common Cause (Ontario, Canada), the Union Comuniste Libertaire (Quebec, Canada) and the North-Eastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (USA), plus platformists Juventud Libertaria (Mexico), libertarian Marxists such as Gramsci is Dead author Richard Day, members of the hardline Communist Party of Canada and of the (Trotskyist) International Bolshevik Tendency.

Ever since the revolutionary vision that is anarchism gained a foothold in the imagination of the popular classes with the rise of syndicalism within the ranks of the trade unions affiliated to the First International in about 1868, it has provided the most devastating and comprehensive critique of capitalism, landlordism, the state and of unequal social power relations in general, whether gender-based or rooted in racism, colonialism or other forms. In their place it has offered a practical set of tools whereby the oppressed of the world can challenge the dominance of the tiny, heavily armed elites that exploit them. As such, anarchism and syndicalism – together what we have termed in Counter-Power Volume 1, Black Flame, “the broad anarchist tradition” – was not only the most implacable enemy of the rise of the industrialists and landed gentry who were the ruling class antagonists in the state/capitalist modernisation project in most countries, but it unalterably shaped class struggle in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, producing several key effects that we today presume to be fundamental aspects of civilised society.

We view the broad anarchist tradition as one which had and which continues to construct concrete projects aimed at dissolving centralist, hierarchical, coercive power, whether of capital or state, and replacing it with a devolved, free-associative, horizontally federated counter-power. This concept of “counter-power” closely echoes the concept of “counterpublics” explored by radical feminist Nancy Fraser. In essence, her counterpublics are socio-political spheres separated from the mainstream, which serve as “training-grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics”. Likewise, anarchist counter-power creates a haven for revolutionary practice which serves as a school for insurgency against the elites, as a beachhead within the mainstream from which to launch its assault, and as the nucleus of a future, radically egalitarian society, or as the Spanish militant Buenaventura Durruti would have it, the “new world in our hearts”. In other words, those of Professor Steven Hirsch of the University of Pittsburgh, speaking of anarchist and syndicalist groups in his doctoral thesis on Peru, they “transmitted a counter-hegemonic culture to organised labour. Through newspapers, cultural associations, sports clubs, and resistance societies they inculcated workers in anti-capitalist, anti-clerical, and anti-paternalistic beliefs. They also infused organised labour with an ethos that stressed self-emancipation and autonomy from non-workers [ie: non-productive and parasitic] groups and political parties.” [1] In a sense, an alternate, horizontal socio-political reality.

Beyond the factory gates, the broad anarchist tradition was among the first to grasp the nettle of racism and ethnic discrimination, establishing an anti-racist ethic that extended from the early multiethnic labour struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World in Argentina, the southern USA, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Cuba, South Africa, Fiji, Chile, Siberia and Mexico, through the anti-fascist guerrilla movements of Argentina, Poland, Uruguay, Hungary, Spain, Italy and Bulgaria, to become a key inspiration for the New Left, and of indigenous struggles today in regions like Oaxaca in Mexico. This grand work, painted on a global canvas with blood, sweat and tears over the past 150 years was a labour of love for generations of “ordinary” people for whom social justice was the watchword. The world has changed dramatically over those decades, shaped in part as we have just indicated by the contribution of the anarchists and syndicalists, a contribution usually relegated to the shadows, derided or denied, but woven into the social fabric of contemporary society.


… Anarchism did not rise as a primordial rebel state of mind as far back as Lao Tzu in ancient China or Zeno in ancient Greece as many like Peter Marshall (in his book Demanding the Impossible) have speculated, and neither was it the child of declining artisanal classes facing extinction by modern modes of production as so many Marxist writers would have us believe. On the contrary, it grew within the seedbed of organised trade unions, federated into the First International, as a modern, internationalist, revolutionary socialist, militant industrial current that argued for a popular class vision of socialism-from-below in opposition to the Marxist vision of the imposition of socialism-from-above.

Its membership over the decades has been drawn heavily from among seamen and stevedores, meat-packers and metalworkers, construction workers and farm workers, sharecroppers and railwaymen, with only a sprinkling of shoemakers, teachers and printers, plus a few doctors, scientists and journalists. Far from being a creed of the crude, it developed at shopfloor level a sophisticated debate on how the militant minority related to broader trade unions and to the popular classes as a whole, of how to move beyond an insurrectionary general strike (or “lock-out of the capitalist class”) to a revolutionary transformation of society through organised, internally-democratic structures of workers’ control, whether unions, rank-and-file networks, popular militia, street committees, consumers’ co-operatives or popular policy-making assemblies.

And yet, many would ask what the relevance of the broad anarchist tradition would be in today’s world, a world of nanotechnology and space tourism far removed from the gas-lit origins of the movement. True, the world has changed. For example, in 1860, when our second volume, Global Fire, our global historical overview of the movement, begins, Washington DC was a rough provincial town with a semi-rural air. Today it is the unchallenged imperial capital of the world, the heart of the US “hyperpower”. When our tale starts, telegraph had already begun to unite people just as barbed wire divided their land – yet successful trans-Atlantic telephone cables and the Fordist production line had yet to see daylight. Many countries, notably Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Baltic and Balkan states, Vietnam, much of the Middle East and South Africa did not even yet exist, and those that did, like Argentina, Egypt, Algeria or Canada, were narrow riverine or coastal strips of the giant territories they would later lay claim to. Women, even in countries as advanced as France, had to wait sometimes 85 years to merely secure the bourgeois vote. Serfdom and even slavery was widespread and the divine right of kings remained supreme over most of the earth’s peoples, from Imperial Japan and China to the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia.

And yet we can find strong echoes today in that world of fifteen decades ago, for it was a world experiencing a disruptive upsurge of globalisation (then expressed by the colonial scramble, the ascendancy of the modern banking system, and the integration of modern industrialising economies). And in response to the breakdown of established societal norms, as the means of production modernised, and under the shadow of unilateral military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia (and of corporations that wielded more power than governments in the developing world), that world saw the rise of terrorism, populism, religious millenarianism, and revolutionary politics as means for the oppressed to explain their pain and fight back – processes that are remarkably familiar to today’s world…


In Counter-Power Volume 2, Global Fire, we will offer a brief yet comprehensive overview of anarchism and syndicalism that tells how their organisations developed and faced challenges – but which also highlights the lives of key militant women and men, and which gives some insight into their thought through their press (often as widely read in their day as today’s mainstream newspapers) and their manifestos. The broad anarchist movement will appear in its two primary aspects: as organised industrial trade unionism; and as a radical working class social movement. Here we will examine briefly the industrial and social foundations of the movement, which will help explain how the idea spread and why it appealed to the popular classes. Aside from Guiseppe Fanelli’s dramatic conversion of the bulk of the organised Spanish working class to anarchism in 1868, there is probably no better example of an industrial vector of anarchism and syndicalism than that most international of all syndicalist unions, the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers’ Industrial Union (MTWIU). According to Hartmut Rübner in his essay titled “Occupational Culture, Conflict Patterns and Organizational Behaviour: Perspectives of Syndicalism in 20th Century Shipping” (1998), “Based on statistical information on the period between 1910 and 1945, the evaluated material indicates an over-proportional number of industrial actions in the sector of shipping. In many of these labour disputes, seamen exhibited a close affinity to those forms of action which are generally characterised as typically syndicalist patterns of conflict behaviour.”

Rübner asked why this was so, and why a relatively small group of syndicalist militants could exercise such great influence, concluding that the sheer cosmopolitanism of maritime labour’s “… common experiences in remote parts of the world [Morgan Miller in his 1999 sketch, A Brief History of the IWW outside the US 1905-1999, cites MTWIU activities in sites such as Chile, China, Cuba and Fiji] certainly created a ‘sense of internationalism’, that helped to overcome the separations between union activists and the rank and file… In the harbour districts, the seafaring-reliant community maintained a tight-knit communication network, that provided the individual seaman with the necessary information interchange to accomplish recreation and job opportunities. Loadinghouses, employment agencies, hiring halls, trade union offices and International Seamen’s Clubs were situated in the direct neighbourhood of the docklands. When conflict situations arose, the localities and meeting places of the harbour districts often functioned as initial positions for collective strike activities.”

This docklands community was not automatically progressive or revolutionary, however. But Rübner notes, traditional socialist and union organisers tended to shy away from organising there, leaving the field open to proletarian syndicalists. And the strongly anti-racist stance of the syndicalists stood in sharp contrast to those of the traditional unions, whereas in seafaring and longshoring, such discrimination made no sense. In fact, he argued that the strength of “… syndicalism in shipping should be seen in correlation to the dwindling attractiveness of exclusive trade union policies” that weakened workers’ power by splintering them into ethnic groupings. On the other hand, “… syndicalism promoted a programmatic internationalism and placed its perspectives upon the idea of a multinational counterpole to the interconnections of capital… [and] Organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) offered access for the semi-qualified or non-white workforce. Due to this accessibility, the IWW scored their first organizational successes amongst those black and Hispanic seamen and dockworkers, formerly neglected by the exclusive and chauvinist union policy. An indication for the outgrowth of seamen’s radicalism can be seen in the fact, that maritime syndicalism had gained remarkable strongholds in France, Netherlands, Italy and the USA before 1914. Through seafaring members of the IWW (‘Wobblies’) and returning immigrants, the idea of industrial unionism spread over to Australasia, Latin America and Europe. In the aftermath of the war, the Maritime Transport Workers’ Industrial Union No.510 of the IWW developed to be the driving force behind international maritime syndicalism… Between 1919 and 1921, maritime syndicalism overrode its minority position and became a factor to be seriously reckoned with.”

Thus maritime syndicalism both counteracted the economic concentration of the industry, as well as rising to meet the challenge of the motorisation of shipping. While Rübner incorrectly writes of the MTWIU’s “centralised industrial unionism” rather than its decentralised structure, he recognises its superiority over the outmoded craft unionism of competing mainstream unions, and notes the union’s “elementary council democracy” based on “… ‘ship’s committees’. Its delegates were supposed to cooperate with the dockworkers in a common ‘port district council’. This model of ‘industrial communism’ which [was] based on regional councils connected to an ‘international headquarters’, was implemented to overcome the ‘national frontiers’.”

In Rübner’s overly brief final analysis of why maritime syndicalism lost the high ground of the early 1920s, he says that firstly, the syndicalists were excluded from new corporativist arrangements implemented in many countries, that secondly, despite their flexible approach to modernisation, crew reductions and the redundancy of entire classes of maritime labour (such as the firemen and coal trimmers) saw members out of work, and lastly that the general dilution of radicalism ashore seriously undercut the syndicalist cause afloat. Although he recognises that “syndicalism displayed its greatest effects in its attempt to overcome both the divisions in craft as well as… ethnic segregation,” it “failed to stabilise radical workplace militancy in a lasting framework”.

And yet he admits that the communist movement, which stepped into the vacuum, could only do so by “implementing the proven parts of the syndicalist strategy” including the concept of ship’s committees. Today, as the corporativist labour arrangements that sustained the status quo in both communist and right-wing dictatorships collapsed and as neo-liberal austerity bites deep into the welfare gains once assured elsewhere, many workers are again industrially as excluded as their syndicalist forebears were – and so syndicalism, usually in a non-political “grassroots” form, but often under the mentorship of the old anarcho-syndicalist unions – is being rediscovered as a means to shift power back to the shopfloor. And as globalisation sees, for example, Bangladeshis working for slave wages in Sudan, the appeal of syndicalism’s multiethnic approach is becoming viable again.


Of course, the social conditions in which workers live, and not only their working life, contributes strongly to their understanding of the world and the methods they adopt to defend their interests, so we turn to Bert Altena’s study of the importance of the class and cultural nature of various communities in determining whether anarchism and syndicalism gained a foothold within them. Rübner noted the political significance of seamen’s culture as expressed in its displays of tattoos featuring anarchist, communist and syndicalist motifs.

Bert Altena states in his essay, Analyzing Revolutionary Syndicalism: the Importance of Community (1999), that: “… revolutionary syndicalism contains [both] an authentic labour movement and one with a tradition. Revolutionary syndicalism was in fact either a continuation of very old labour movements or, as I will argue, a phenomenon in which the world of the workers was isolated from the rest of society. In these circumstances, workers generally had to rely on themselves for social security and they could develop their own workers’ culture. Parliamentary politics belonged to the world of the bourgeoisie, which was completely foreign to workers… The anarchists, who during the 1880s and 1890s saw that their strategy of insurrection and terror did not help their cause, brought to these workers only a sharper theoretical articulation of their beliefs by introducing them to the concepts of the general strike, direct action, the value of action by workers themselves, the importance of direct democracy. They also gave them a broader cultural perspective. They only taught the workers to state more clearly what they already thought, to do better what they already practiced and they brought them the perspective of a class society beyond the local sphere.”

Altena takes as his examples two neighbouring Netherlands towns of equal size (around 20,000 residents each in 1899): the industrial port town of Flushing; and the local government seat and market town of Middelburg, a mere six kilometres away. By then Dutch anarcho-syndicalism was enjoying its first successes through the growth of the National Workers’ Secretariat (NAS) and Flushing was dominated by one big shipyard, and other employment was to be found on the docks or on the ferry to England. Middelburg by comparison had small construction yards, a metalworks and a timber company. Altena says: “As a result of the town’s economy, the social structure of Flushing consisted of a broad working-class base, a rather small layer of middle classes (shopkeepers, teachers and clerical workers) and a very small elite. The social structure of Middelburg was much less lopsided and at the same time more differentiated. The town had a rather broad layer of shopkeepers. The educated middle classes were much stronger because of Middelburg’s function as the administrative and judicial centre of the province and its rich collection of educational institutions. The elite of Middelburg (gentry, magistrates and some entrepreneurs) consequently was much larger and more strongly represented in the town than its equivalent in Flushing.”

The shopkeepers in Flushing were pretty poor themselves, so the workers’ connection to the elite was weak. Plus the municipality itself was too impoverished to assist workers in times of crisis, forcing them to rely on themselves. By comparison, in Middelburg, the broad middle class produced many social-democrat teachers, artisanal entrepreneurs and lawyers who not only provided the workers with a social connection to the elite, but who, enabled by the town’s greater wealth, could assist the workers in troubled times. Altena notes: “Socialism appeared in Flushing much earlier (1879) than it did in Middelburg and it was entirely a working class affair. It developed in a libertarian direction. For the next forty years the labour movement of Flushing would be dominated by revolutionary syndicalism. It proved extremely difficult to establish a branch of the social-democratic party in this working-class town. Only in 1906 a tiny and weak branch was set up. The revolutionary syndicalists, however, developed a rich culture: choirs, a freethought union with its own library, musical societies and a very good theatrical club, which performed an ambitious repertoire… it was much easier to keep the syndicalist principle intact with the help of cultural activities than on the shopfloor only… Flushing presented no problem to the syndicalists in further developing their cultural activities. Bourgeois cultural life, with its own concerts, plays and libraries hardly existed in the town.”

By comparison, in Middelburg, “After 1895, even their [the workers’] own branch of the social-democratic party was dominated by socialists from bourgeois origins… The workers of Middelburg not only found it much more difficult to develop an independent culture of their own, independence was also repressed on the shopfloor.” In Middelburg where women often worked as maids in the houses of the wealthy, a working-class attitude of servility was cultivated, whereas in Flushing, where women were active and visible syndicalists, workers’ pride in their skills, established through job control, was high. Altena concludes that working-class cultural counter-power is as important to the attractiveness of anarchism and syndicalism (which he, like us, equates), as its industrial counter-power: “When workers can build a world of their own, the choice for syndicalism is a logical, though not a necessary one. This could explain why syndicalist movements tend to appear in mono-industrial, company towns…”

This was certainly true of, say, the mining towns of the American Midwest where the IWW became a force to be reckoned with, but cannot be said to hold for the more economically diversified worlds of port cities where syndicalism entrenched itself, except to the extent that maritime workers formed their own “sub-culture” distinct from that of their neighbouring railwaymen and meat-packers. Altena argues that whereas syndicalism created an alternate world for workers, the mainstream social-democratic and Christian unions, especially through parliamentarism, “integrated workers into the political structures and processes of the country”. We would add the communist unions – except in countries where they were forced to act much like the syndicalists, as an illegal counter-power – in this function of integrating workers into the needs of capital and the state, instead of standing opposed to it.

Altena notes that: “In cultural activities too the syndicalists were confronted with competitors: sports (which many syndicalists disliked because sports diverted from the essential struggle of the workers) or ‘capitalist’ forms of entertainment such as movies and dancing. The radio challenged the syndicalist music and theatre with ‘real’ professional culture and made them look poor and amateurish. Possibly the most important factor was that syndicalist culture was intimately intertwined with the movement as a whole. It was always imbued with syndicalist norms and it pointed to the big syndicalist goal. As soon as syndicalism lost the realisability of its vision, its culture became hollow because its message became hollow… In so far as the syndicalists did not abandon their principles or disbanded, they had to accept marginalisation. Marginal movements, however, can still be very useful movements.”

And so it has proven, with both the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and today’s anti-capitalist movement re-opening the anarchist and syndicalist toolbox, its tools so carefully polished and maintained over the decades of decline by a dedicated militant minority, to rediscover not only the most effective forms of directly-democratic resistance, but the cultural forms that sustained that decentralised form of popular power. Now that millions of people are excluded from the globally uniform pay-to-enjoy spectacle of capitalist culture, many are turning to self-generated culture, in all its locally-specific diversity to sustain their new vision of a self-empowered world, the realisability of which has become tangible again, and so its message more commanding of attention. As an edition of the New York Times a few years ago had it, anarchism remains “the idea that would not die”.


  1. From his 1997 essay, Anarcho-Syndicalist Roots of a Multi-Class Alliance: Organized Labor and the Peruvian Aprista Party 1900-1933