The syndicalist encounter with Bolshevism.

Author:Tosstorff, Reiner

This article is about the conflictual relationship of non-Russian syndicalist organisations with Bolshevism and the Communist International after the October Revolution. (1) The term 'syndicalism' is defined as covering all of the tendencies whose self-perception gave precedence to the revolutionary trade union over the party, if not its complete replacement. This rather dismissive relationship to the organisational form of the party represented its main point of difference with the emergent communist movement. This does not mean that, aside from this main characteristic, there were not strong differences of opinion in syndicalist ranks. This could be assumed from the contemporary political language, which differentiated between Industrialists, Unionists and the 'actual' Syndicalists. In this way, one could differentiate between organisations in the 'craft trade union' tradition of the French CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail), industrial unions like the North American IWW (Industrial Workers of the World)--who were better known as the 'Wobblies'--or the then British Shop Stewards, as well as the 'united (or unity) organisations' (2) after the example of the German industrial unions, to say nothing of the more 'exotic' examples like supporters of the now forgotten Daniel DeLeon, who attributed to industrial associations equal rights alongside the party. These organisational differences may have influenced the relationships that particular groups forged with Bolshevism. Yet they were only a subordinate factor in the general feud about the main issue of whether trade union or party had priority in the class war. This article will not, however, deal with the complicated question of the anarchists'--who are often wrongly equated with syndicalists--relationship to the October Revolution, since they did not belong to such trade union organisations. (3) Indeed, there were significant anarchist tendencies which strongly rejected work in the trade unions as, by their nature, they inclined to reformism. Before the First World War, the self designation--above all in Romance languages--was simply 'syndicalist' (4), which meant nothing more other than trade union movement; perhaps for clarity, the adjective 'revolutionary' was then added. 'Anarcho-syndicalism' is then the later specific nexus of anarchism and syndicalism as first produced in the controversy about the Bolshevik revolution.

In summary, this article deals with revolutionary trade union associations which were self-sufficient and represented an 'industrial strategy', from wage struggles to the general strike. They were united in strident criticism of parliamentarianism and the bureaucratisation of the 'traditional' trade unions; in other words, with what we today would call rejection of indirect representation. (5) This portrait of revolutionary unions has its main emphasis in southern Europe. Here, syndicalism dominated the trade-union movement in many areas and was, thus, more influential than 'Marxism'. This does not mean that syndicalism was not represented in many other countries; but that it tended to be a minority current.

Before the First World War, the Bolsheviks followed the model of the 'orthodox Marxism'of the German Social Democrats in their virulent rejection of syndicalism. Although syndicalism did not play a great role in the Russian workers' movement, the Bolsheviks had 'learned'--by following debates in the international workers' movement--that it represented a 'negative deviation'. Lenin used this in the international debates of the Bolshevik faction. For, apart from some anarchists, it was the 'ultra-Left' Bolsheviks around Bogdanov and Lunacharsky who tried to make known the ideas of West European syndicalism to Russian workers and who, in Lenin's eyes, appeared particularly deviationist. (6) This negative attitude changed with the First World War. When social democracy split into supporters and opponents of the war, syndicalism (and anarchism) also experienced a similar development, even if those forces supporting the war were a minority. The result was that Bolshevism came into contact with syndicalist groupings in the anti-war Left (Zimmerwald and Kienthal). The outstanding example of this syndicalist, anti-war Left was produced in France with the grouping around the journal La Vie Ouvriere inside the CGT. Its editorial circle (of whom Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer (7) are particularly worthy of mention) worked closely with Russian revolutionaries in exile in France (around the journal Nashe Slovo). Appropriately, two of them, Leon Trotsky and, above all, Solomon Dridzo (who was later known by the pseudonym he used in the Russian movement, Alexander Lozovsky) played an important part in the future discussions between syndicalists and communists. The latter could even point to his own period of activity in the CGT before the First World War. (8)

In addition, after the October Revolution the Bolsheviks also directed their proclamations for the foundation of the Communist International to groupings from the syndicalist sphere and called for their participation. (9) Their call fell on fertile soil. In the years 1918 and 1919, the vast majority responded positively to the news from Russia. Numerous examples can be found from across the world. At the beginning of 1918 the leading Wobbly, Harrison George, wrote from his prison cell--where he was interned for his opposition to the war--a pamphlet about the Russian Revolution under the title Red Dawn, which found a wide circulation. The Argentinean trade union federation FORA (Federacion Obrera Regional Argentina) complemented its name to include the adjective communist in order to show its solidarity with the Bolsheviks (i.e. was now known as FORA-C). At the end of 1918, the central organ of the Spanish CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo) wrote:

Bolshevism is the name, but the idea is that of all revolutions: economic freedom [...] Bolshevism represents the end of superstition, of dogma, of tyranny and of crime [...] Bolshevism is the new life for which we struggle, it is freedom, harmony, justice, it is the life that we want and will enforce in the world. (10) What explains this positive embrace of the Bolshevik revolution? It is all the more surprising as, in one way or another, many syndicalists came from an anarchist background or were under this type of influence; to them, all sorts of Marxist politics were treated with suspicion. The endorsements can be explained using a statement by the former Wobbly turned Communist, James P. Cannon, speaking decades later to the historian Theodor Draper about his discussion in 1919 with the co-founder of the IWW, Vincent St. John: 'I believe he was as sympathetic at that time, as I was. The revolution was an action--and that's what he believed in.' (11) The Bolsheviks had destroyed the capitalist state and thereby shown that revolution was possible; by contrast, social democracy only spoke about socialism. This revolution had taken place against bourgeois parliamentarianism and under the influence of the soviets, the workers' councils. It was, therefore, a revolution which had nothing to do with 'politicians'. It took only one step to identify the soviets with trade unions, the works syndicates. This argument is found in numerous contemporary syndicalist statements.

In this early period there was no possibility for the syndicalists to familiarise themselves systematically with the reality of Bolshevik power. Although the invitation had been extended, no syndicalists found their way to the founding congress of the Comintern in March 1919. Visiting Russia was first practically possible when the blockade of the country became ineffective in the spring of 1920 with the Bolshevik victory in the civil war.

Before this, however, one question made itself conspicuous, anticipating future confrontations: the 'trade union question'. Where communist parties were formed, they were normally created out of social democratic parties. Their members belonged to the socialist-led trade unions. Yet where syndicalist unions also existed, there was now conflict over the question of whether communists should join them, as these were unambiguously revolutionary, thus leaving the reformist trade-union associations.

The discussion had great significance in Germany, for example. One of the reasons for this was the role played by the Bolsheviks' representative, Karl Radek. Bolstered by the authority of the Russian party, he attempted to implement so-called 'cell building' inside the Social Democratic-led trade unions. The nascent KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands), which was still trying to win a mass basis of support, carried out a party split in a manner leading to confrontation with its syndicalist tendency. It was not by chance that the syndicalist FAUD (Freie Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands) went from a position of sympathy to a position of confrontation with communism. Another example would be Sweden. In contrast to other countries in which communist parties were founded more slowly (and--perhaps it was no coincidence--where syndicalists were much stronger) the early quarrel over the trade union question did not take place. At the same time a further question emerged: that of the 'leading role' of the party. What this meant was whether a political party had the right to intervene in trade-union affairs, even imposing its political line on the trade unions...

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