1-5 April 2021
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The revolutionary road to nowhere: revolutionary syndicalism in WWI


About this session

In the early 20th century, syndicalist-led unions and organisations developed in country after country as part of a widespread radicalisation of the working class. Chafing at the timidity and conservatism of official trade unionism and with a deep hostility for parliamentary reformists, syndicalists sought to build a revolutionary workers’ movement that had the power to overthrow capitalism and end wage slavery. 

Direct action, sabotage and above all else, the general strike were their chosen tools. The vehicle for the revolutionary overthrow was to be industrial unions. They emphasised the importance of class unity, eschewing all that divided the working class - from sectionalism to racism and nationalism. Political action and socialist organisation was to be at best subordinate to the class struggle at the point of production. 

While there are lots of important differences between syndicalists, some set up separate syndicalist unions, others fought to transform and lead existing unions while others still formed more cohered political organisations around particular newspapers, what united syndicalist currents was confidence in the revolutionary potential of working class self-activity and a hatred for reformist sell-outs.

Syndicalism in one form or another animated many of the best working class militants at the beginning of the 20th century. In a number of countries, such as France, Spain, Ireland and Argentina was probably the largest current within the working class for a time. In the USA, Chile, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, syndicalist-led unions and organisations gained serious followings. 

However, by the end of the First World War, most syndicalist movements had been smashed by state repression, others became increasingly reformist. In Spanish Civil War, the anarcho-syndicalist led trade union, the CNT, also failed the task, joining the bourgeois government which was winding back the social revolution. 

Why did syndicalist movements fail to bring workers to power where the Bolsheviks succeeded?

With a focus on the US IWW and the French CGT, this talk will explore both the many strengths of syndicalism, but also the important weakness of their approach to the revolutionary transformation of society.

Recommended Reading

Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalismby Ralph Darlington
The Industrial Workers of the World in Australiain Marxist Left Reviewby Mick Armstrong
The First Shop Stewards Movement by John Hinton
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