Syndicalism and the influence of anarchism in France, Italy and Spain.

Author:Darlington, Ralph

Many historians have emphasised the extent to which revolutionary syndicalism was indebted to anarchist philosophy in general and to Bakunin in particular, with some even using the term 'anarcho-syndicalism' to describe the movement. (1) Certainly within the French, Italian and Spanish syndicalist movements anarchists or so-called 'anarcho-syndicalists' were able to gain significant, albeit variable, influence. They were to be responsible in part for the respective movements' rejection of political parties, elections and parliament in favour of direct action by the unions, as well as their conception of a future society in which, instead of a political state apparatus, the only form of government would be the economic administration of industry exercised directly by the workers themselves. Other features of the syndicalist movements in these three countries, such as federalism, anti-clericalism and anti-militarism, were also profoundly influenced by specifically anarchist ideas and organisation. (2) However if Marxism was a convergence of German philosophy, British political economy and French socialism, (3) the traditional assumption, by contrast, that syndicalism was simply an outgrowth of anarchism, would be an over-simplification, even though the two were certainly directly related inside the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) in France, the Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI) in Italy and the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) in Spain. But in many other countries where syndicalist movements also flourished (for example, Britain, Ireland or America), anarchist influence was only of marginal consequence.

After a brief clarification of the terms 'syndicalism' and 'anarcho-syndicalism', this article outlines the development of anarchist ideological and organisational influence within the syndicalist movements in France, Italy and Spain, and considers some of the factors that encouraged the development of syndicalist movements and anarchist influence within them. It re-examines two common assumptions made about the relationship between syndicalism and anarchism, including: (a) the widely favoured explanation for the success of a distinctive 'anarcho-syndicalist' movement in Spain and Italy, and to a lesser extent France--namely that it was a logical consequence of these countries' social and economic backwardness; and (b) the common perception that the residual strength of syndicalism (including its anarcho-syndicalist forms) lay not with the industrial working class, but with economically marginalised, often unskilled and unorganised, workers. Finally the article provides evidence to suggest that if the development of revolutionary syndicalism was directly related to anarchist ideas and organisation, it was far from simply being an anarchist invention and it is important not to conflate the one into the other. (4)


There is often a great deal of misunderstanding about the meaning of the terms 'syndicalism' and 'anarcho-syndicalism', with both terms often used interchangeably by some commentators. One useful description of the term 'syndicalism' has been provided by Wayne Thorpe:

[It] ... refers to those trade union organisations that shared a number of characteristics: they viewed class conflict as inevitable under capitalism; they espoused not only short-term goals but also long-term revolutionary objectives, especially the inauguration of a collectivised, worker-managed socio-economic order. They differed from their social democratic counterparts above all in that they considered the decisive agency of workers' action to be the revolutionary trade union, which united workers as workers, unlike political parties, which grouped multi-class supporters only as voters. They were extra-parliamentary, advocating direct action by organised unions over indirect, mediated action through the political process, and they deemed the general strike to be the ultimate revolutionary weapon as well as labour's most effective means of combating capitalist wars. (5) But arguably we can define syndicalism in a rather simpler and broader sense to simply mean: 'revolutionary trade unionism'. Such a definition would, of course, not embrace all unions that have in the past been committed to revolutionary politics, given this would also be true at times of communist and other left-wing dominated unions. But what it does underline is the equal importance of revolution and unionism--the fact that the essence of syndicalism was revolutionary action by unions aimed at establishing a society based upon unions. (6) This conception differed from both socialist and communist counterparts in viewing the decisive agency of the revolutionary transformation of society to be unions (as opposed to political parties or the state), and in aiming for a collectivised worker-managed socioeconomic order to be run by unions (as opposed to political parties or the state).

Of course, it is true that despite formal revolutionary declarations by the CGT during the first decade of the century, a minority of union members (organised in some of the larger unions and federations) were undoubtedly reformist in outlook. Moreover, after 1910 the union leadership as a whole moved a considerable way towards accommodating to capitalist society, tempering their previous ideas with a considerable amount of reformist activity and collaboration with the war effort, although there remained a sizeable revolutionary wing inside the Confederation. Nonetheless, despite the existence of such internal tensions and variations in emphasis over time within specific movements in France as in other countries, the term 'syndicalism' can generally be understood to refer to movements, organisations and/or minority groups that were committed to revolutionary objectives. (7)

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that 'syndicalism' is necessarily only a very broad term for a number of related but rather different revolutionary union movements that flourished in a variety of forms across the world. Larry Peterson has argued that the use of this term has the danger of blurring the distinctions between the movements according to a single exclusive model, when in fact syndicalism was merely one of several factions within a more general movement in favour of revolutionary industrial unionism. (8) Certainly it is important to bear in mind that different movements were sometimes known by varying terms in their respective countries, including: 'revolutionary syndicalism' (France and Britain), 'industrial unionism' (America) and 'anarcho-syndicalism' (Spain and Italy). Although it was an international phenomenon that grew out of similar economic, social and political conditions, syndicalism undoubtedly manifested itself concretely in direct relation to national conditions and traditions, with each country producing its own specific version or versions of the movement which were far from uniform.

Arguably the colloquial description of such different movements as 'syndicalist' is both useful and justified because it draws attention to basic fundamental similarities between them. For example, few of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in America called themselves 'syndicalists'; in fact most preferred the term 'industrial unionist'. But as Melvyn Dubofsky has persuasively argued, an examination of the language used in IWW newspapers, pamphlets, books, and speeches, reveals ideas, concepts and theories (although not all tactics) that are almost indistinguishable from those espoused by European union militants who described themselves as syndicalists. (9) In other words the specific strategic approach and organisational forms adopted by individual syndicalist movements, and the variety of labels which they used to describe themselves, or have subsequently had pinned on them, are of less importance than the essential underlying nature of the movements that they had in common. We should also note that any one of the supposedly more nationally-specific terms, such as 'anarcho-syndicalism', are themselves somewhat problematic given the changes in leadership and direction that tended to occur over time within individual movements. Thus any attempt to substitute the broad term 'syndicalism' with a more defined term by no means necessarily clarifies our understanding (at least outside of context and time period) and can, in fact, sometimes be misleading.

Finally, the use of the broad generic term can also be justified on the basis that syndicalism needs to be understood not only in terms of ideological doctrine, but as a mode of action, a practical social movement engaged in working class struggle. Frederick Ridley has suggested it was: 'the sum of ideas expressed by the movement and the sum of its activities; the outlook shared by members and the form their action took'. (10) Marcel van der Linden's inclination is to regard the ideological criteria of syndicalism as the least important compared with what the movement did in practice at both the organisational and shopfloor levels. (11) However, whilst the broad term 'syndicalism' is used in this article to refer to the varied movements that existed in France, Italy and Spain, there is also an attempt to remain sensitive not only to the considerable variations that existed between (and within) such individual movements at any one time, but also to the fact that all three movements were undoubtedly, compared with some other syndicalist movements in other countries, significantly influenced by anarchist philosophy and practice, and contained more or less distinct groups of anarchists or 'anarcho-syndicalists' who struggled for ideological and organisational control of the movements as a whole (with varying degrees of success). In this sense 'anarcho-syndicalism' can be defined as syndicalist ideas and activity infused with a heavy dose of anarchist colouration.

Even so it should be noted that the...

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