Global anarchism and syndicalism: theory, history, resistance.

Author:van der Walt, Lucien

A preliminary note on terms

Please note that when I use the term 'syndicalism', here I am using it in the English sense of specifically meaning revolutionary syndicalism and/ or anarcho-syndicalism, not in the Romance language sense of meaning unions in general. And when I just say 'anarchism', I am usually including 'syndicalism' (both anarcho- and revolutionary syndicalism) because it's a variant of anarchism. Revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalism, are forms of anarchist trade unionism, rooted in the anarchist tradition, constituting strategies for anarchism, rather than a separate ideology or movement.

One of the key issues that must be addressed for a project like this--a project which looks at anarchism and seeks to do so in a truly global and planetary way, rather than through a narrow focus on parts of Europe (which is how the history of anarchism is often done)--is that you have to think very carefully how you define the subject. So, if we are to discuss 'anarchism,' we need to have a clear definition, and this is where we come up against some serious problems in the existing literature.


The issue of where you draw the boundary around 'anarchism' is very important.

It is important to the analysis and the research: I am not talking about drawing an arbitrary boundary, just to be exclusive for its own sake.

The problem with a loose definition is that you do not have a clear subject of study; inclusion and exclusion become vague, arbitrary and often absurd. There is, in English, a well-known survey of anarchism by Peter Marshall. This is an important and insightful book. But it defines anarchism very loosely: basically to be anarchist is to be against 'authority', especially the 'authority' of the state. 'Authority' is not really defined here, and also, as I will show later, just being against the state, for whatever reason, by no means provides a reasonable basis to define something or someone as 'anarchist'.

Using this approach, we find Marshall including in his survey of anarchism the neo-liberal Margaret Thatcher, as a so-called 'anarcho-capitalist', because she opposed state intervention and welfare, (1) as well as the Marxist-Leninist Che Guevara, because Guevara was mildly critical of some of the bureaucratisation of the Castro regime, fostered a 'libertarian spirit', and played a 'creative' role in the 1960s. But these were people who embraced the state, in principle, even if they were against certain state forms.

And remember, Thatcher played a key role in breaking the British welfare state and trade unions, in driving down wages and closing industries, and in shifting income to the rich. For her, being against the state merely meant being against the interventions of the state in the free market. She was perfectly happy to use the state to beat up protestors, strikers, to invade the Falklands. As for Guevara, we are talking here about a man who admired Joseph Stalin, who worked with the Russian dictatorship, who helped erect a one-party state with a secret police, in Cuba. So, yes, he was mildly critical of some elements of the Castro regime, but it's a regime that he, of course, helped construct and helped run, a regime he never repudiated.

Not just 'Anti-State'

But if we just define anarchism as being 'against' the state and against 'imposed political authority' like Marshall, and then use the notion of being 'against' the state in a very loose and vague way (and here, it obviously does not even entail wanting the abolition of the state, but just some changes in the state), then it is logical to include Guevara and Thatcher.

But if, by the same token, we can logically have a study of anarchism, like that of Marshall on anarchism, that is comfortable including neo-liberals and Marxist-Leninists as part of the story anarchism, then we have a logical problem.

Specifically, if we define anarchism loosely, as mere anti-statism, or maybe as a vague commitment to 'freedom' of 'the individual', then it becomes very difficult to consistently distinguish it from other ideologies--not least, from neo-liberalism and Marxism-Leninism. And if we cannot distinguish anarchism from neo-liberalism and Marxism-Leninism, then it is pretty difficult to demonstrate that such a current as anarchism even exists.

Analytically, the problem goes even further: if we follow the line of argument that Marshall makes, where anarchism is effectively reduced to opposition to the state, then we must be consistent, not arbitrary.

If we define anarchism just as being against the state, there is no reason why Karl Marx or Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse Tung cannot be included, because they all said, quite explicitly, that the state must 'wither away' in the future, as part of the final emancipation of humankind. Guevara may have made an appearance in Marshall's book, but there is no reason to exclude Stalin or Mao. That is arbitrary. If Guevara can fit, there is no reason Stalin and Mao cannot.

But to define anarchism in such a way that it can embrace Stalin or Mao seems to me highly problematic--not to add that this is an approach that elides all sorts of crucial issues. For example, figures like Stalin and Mao were associated with massive repression, a one-party state and so on. I don't think that it is unreasonable to suggest that historic anarchism has been in favour of pluralism, debate and basic political and civil rights. But if we define it in a way that can include Stalin, then surely we cannot claim that historic anarchism has been in favour of pluralism, debate and basic political and civil rights.

Similarly, neo-liberals are sceptical of the state, and they believe the power of the state must be reduced as much as possible, whether it's in the economy as a whole, or in economic transactions between contracting individuals. So, if to be anarchist is just to be against the state, then there is no particular reason not to include, for instance, J.S. Mill, von Mises or von Hayek or Milton Friedman, or even General Pinochet in Chile, into the anarchist tradition, because they are anti-statist in the sense that they distrust state intervention, and view the free market as emancipatory, efficient and natural.

Clarity of analysis

But to include Thatcher--even if we stop at Mill and the rest--must mean that certain elements can reasonably be taken as part of historic anarchism, like opposition to capitalism, wage systems, and private property, must also thereby be treated as irrelevant to, as inessential to, historic anarchism. So, anarchism here becomes something compatible with one-party states (through Stalin) and free markets (through Thatcher), and simultaneously with increased and reduced state intervention, and with one party states and multi-party states, being against 'authority' but fine with trampling on basic rights.

Throughout history, you'll find some people who are against the state in some way or other, but to treat them all as 'anarchists' leads us to straight into an analytical dead end.

If anarchism is just anti-statism, we can and must include as 'anarchists' both Stalin and Pinochet. But if we can include Stalin and Pinochet, Marxist-Leninists and neo-liberals, dictators of left and right, and a whole host of others, then if there is anything evidently or specifically 'anarchist' anywhere, it's not clear what it might be.

We can treat all of those people as 'anarchists,' but if we do, the very notion that something called 'anarchism' even exists becomes nonsensical, because it becomes impossible to actually delineate anarchism from anything else. And once that is done, the very possibility or utility of actually studying and understanding anarchism in the first place is destroyed by the project of trying to do so.

If we use the argument that 'anarchism' means pretty much anything that is against the state, then we will certainly find anarchists everywhere. Marshall is perfectly consistent when he says that the first 'anarchist' was Adam, in the Garden of Eden, when he didn't listen to God. But the problem is that if anarchism is universal in human history, then it cannot be explained by reference to changing social conditions. This would mean, in effect, that anarchism is in some way a natural part of humanity. But if that is the case, then there is another serious analytical problem: if anarchism is natural to people, then we cannot understand much of human history, which undoubtedly involves the ongoing expansion of oppression, exploitation, and of the power of an elite few over a working and poor majority.

Movement myths versus movement realities

Now, here we must grapple with another problem, which is that all political movements, all movements to change the world, create around themselves a set of myths. Anarchists also make their own myths: the argument that anarchism is somehow a universal feature of human society is one that some key anarchists have used in order to legitimise their embattled, controversial movement.

Making claims that anarchism is universal and steeped in the ages is a simple and easy way of deflecting claims that the movement is new, impossible or bizarre.

It allows, for example, anarchists to claim an ancient and venerable lineage and a massive historical importance; and it 'naturalises' the movement. But it's just not a valid claim, however politically useful it might seem to be.

We must therefore distinguish between certain anarchist myths, from the actual history of anarchism. So, to study anarchism we have to study anarchism, but not necessarily always in the way that the anarchists themselves have presented themselves. It is important to study how the anarchists created mythologies, but also important not accept those mythologies, regardless of whether some anarchists propagate those mythologies, or those mythologies recur in academic works.

Allow me to draw an analogy. Nationalists have usually developed a mythical and...

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