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Reclaiming Syndicalism: From Spain to South Africa to Global Labour Today
international | workplace struggles | opinion / analysis Friday July 04, 2014 18:30 by Lucien van der Walt
van der Walt, Lucien (2014) “Reclaiming Syndicalism: From Spain to South Africa to Global Labour Today,” Global Labour Journal, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 239-252.
ABSTRACT: Events like the 2012 Marikana police massacre of miners in South Africa bring into sharp relief core features of today’s crisis-ridden, inequitable world order, wherein labour and human rights abuses multiply in a vicious race-to-the-bottom. Union politics remain central to developing responses to this system. But unions, like other popular movements, face the core challenge of articulating an alternative, transformative vision — especially given the crisis of social democratic, Marxist-Leninist and nationalist approaches.
…. One Big Union of all wage workers… aggressively forging ahead …. gaining strength from each victory and learning by every temporary set-back – until the working class is able to take possession and control of the machinery, premises and materials of production right from the capitalists’ hands, and use that control to distribute the product entirely amongst the workers … It takes every colour, creed and nation. Revolutionary Industrial Unionism is ‘organised efficiency’. Every worker in every industry; every industry part and parcel of one great whole.
Political, autonomous, anti-statist
With this ethos, syndicalism envisages a militant class-struggle unionism that empowers members while minimising internal hierarchy, and actively opposing domination and oppression by nation, race and sex – within the larger society, but within the union too. Historically, it promoted political education and struggle around larger social and political issues, and forged alliances with a range of other popular movements, including neighborhood, youth and political groups, while steering sharply clear of alliances with all political parties aiming at state power.
To use the state, with its hierarchical character and deep alliance with capitalists and landlords, contradicts the basic syndicalist project of constituting, from the bottom-up, a militant and autonomous working class movement able to replace hierarchy and exploitation (including by the state). Moreover, the state is no ally of the working class, providing a place of power and wealth for a political elite that is allied, structurally, to the corporations, themselves a place of power and wealth for an economic elite. Reliance on electoral parties is viewed as futile, serving mainly to deliver the unions up as voting cattle, while promoting passive reliance on officials, bureaucrats and the (hostile) capitalist state (Spitzer, 1963: 379-388). Allying with vanguard parties to create revolutionary dictatorships is also incompatible with a bottom-up movement for self-management; such regimes can only repress, never emancipate, the popular classes.
Syndicalist anti-statism does not, it must be stresssed, mean disinterest in political issues, for syndicalism fights for ‘political rights and liberties’ just as much as it does for better wages (Rocker,  1989: 88-89, 111). However, it does not do so through parliaments and the state, but outside and against both, with the trade union, ‘toughened by daily combat and permeated by Socialist spirit’ and bringing to bear the power of workers at the point of production, the ‘lance head’ of these and other broader working class battles (Ibid.).
A viable alternative?
To what extent was syndicalism ever an important tradition, worthy of serious consideration? And to what extent can its project be seen as one that is more than merely rhetorical i.e. to what extent did it achieve both its immediate and ultimate objectives?
A complete answer to the first question exceeds the scope of this paper, suffice it to say that the view that anarchism and syndicalism were ‘never more than a minority attraction’ (e.g. Kedward, 1971: 120) has been widely challenged by a ‘small avalanche’ of scholarship (Anderson, 2010: xiii) demonstrating the existence of mass anarcho- and revolutionary syndicalist unions in the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of Europe, in countries as diverse as Argentina, Bolivia, France, Cuba, Peru, Portugal, The Netherlands as well as of powerful syndicalist movements elsewhere, including Britain, Czechia, Hungary, Italy, Japan and Russia, and the lasting imprint of both on popular and union culture. In colonial and postcolonial countries, including Bolivia, Egypt and South Africa, these formations played an important part in struggles against imperialism and national oppression; they pioneered unions in countries as diverse as China, Egypt, Malaysia, and Mexico. Syndicalist unions were also involved in major uprisings and rebellions, including in Mexico (1916), Italy (1913, 1920), Portugal (1918), Brazil (1918), Argentina (1919, 1922), and Spain (1909, 1917, 1932/3).
Nor did the story of these movements end in 1914 (or 1917): many syndicalist movements and currents peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, as in Peru and Poland, and a number survived – sometimes undergoing big bursts of growth, as in postwar France (Damier, 2009: 193) and Chile– in the years that followed. For instance, syndicalism remained an influence in Argentinean, Brazilian, Bolivian, Chilean and Cuban unions into the 1960s, and among Uruguayan workers and students in the 1970s (Mechoso, 2002), with a massive revival in Spain in the 1970s and early 1980s; other notable cases include the guerrilla war of the anarchist Chu Cha-pei in Yunan, China, against the Maoist regime in the 1950s (H. L. Wei interview in Avrich, 1995: 214 et seq.). The 1960s revolts and the New Left, the post-Berlin Wall era, and in contemporary and Occupy movements (for anarchists in Occupy Wall Street: Bray, 2013) and radical unions (Ness, 2014) have all provided vectors for new anarchist and syndicalist influence and growth.
Transformation from below: Syndicalism as revolution
Regarding the second question, the extent to which syndicalism achieved its immediate and ultimate objectives, a growing literature generally indicates that syndicalist formations generally had and have an impressive record of promoting oppositional working class movements, of organising durable movements with pragmatic yet principled programmes and democratic practices, of winning real economic, political and social gains, and in providing space for the elaboration of radical alternatives and human dignity. ‘Embedded in larger popular movements and countercultures, linked to other organised popular constituencies, taking up issues that went well beyond the workplace, playing a central role in community struggles, and at the heart of a project of revolutionary counterculture, including the production of mass circulation daily and weekly newspapers, the historical syndicalist unions were social movements that never reduced the working class to wage earners, or the aspirations of the working class to wages’ (van der Walt and Schmidt, 2009: 21).
Counter-power, counter-culture: The CNT in Spain
What, then, of the ability to move from prefiguration to figuration, from counter-power to taking power, from revolutionary preparation to revolution? There are a number of important cases of the concrete and positive anarchist and/or syndicalist programme being implemented in various degrees, including in Macedonia, Mexico, the Ukraine, and Manchuria. But the case in which syndicalist unions played the most central role remains that of the Spanish Revolution of 19361939.
The most important union federation in Spain was the 2-million strong CNT, in a population of around 24 million: if we keep the proportions, and translate them onto today’s larger South African population, the CNT would have been 4-million strong i.e. twice as large as COSATU. The CNT organised in a wide variety of sectors, with a major presence in the industrial region of Catalonia, but it also had a rural presence and important strongholds elsewhere in the country (for material on the CNT and the Revolution, see inter alia Ackelsberg, 1985; Ackelsberg, 1993; Amsden, 1978; Bosch, 2001; an overview can be found in Hattingh, 2011; contemporary accounts and oral histories can be found in Dolgoff 1974; Fraser, 1979).
The CNT was strong but bottom-up, well-organised but decentralised, and very, very militant. Its union structure was relatively flat, with a minuscule full-time staff, with decisions centred on the local membership, which met regularly in general assembly and appointed mandated delegates, roughly equivalent to shopstewards. In terms of struggles, emphasis was placed on direct action, rather than the use of industrial courts and arbitration, or parliamentary politics, as a means of promoting self-confidence, self-reliance and self-activity.
CNT activities were ambitious and wide-ranging. It had a history of partial and general strikes, and had actively joined rent strikes and other protests; it had cells working within the armed forces; and it had an enormous presence in many working class neighbourhoods, running centres that provided meeting spaces, classes and a range of cultural activities; it was closely linked to anarchist youth, women’s and propaganda groups. In addition the CNT published and distributed vast numbers of books and pamphlets: by 1938, it ran more than 40 newspapers and magazines, including many mass circulation dailies (Rocker,  1989: 146), and had a radio service.
In short, the CNT had an enormous impact on working class and peasant consciousness, stressing revolution as direct working class and peasant control of society, including self-management of workplaces through CNT structures. The most radical CNT militants organised in the semi-clandestine Anarchist Federation of Iberia (FAI): not a parliamentary party or a Leninist vanguard, the 30,000-strong FAI was an anarchist political organisation that aimed to promote the CNT project and the revolutionary struggle. It is, finally, worth noting that the CNT and FAI vastly overshadowed the Spanish Communist Party, which struggled to move to get above 10,000 members.
The Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939: Resist, occupy, produce
In July 1936, there was an attempted military coup, backed by the most conservative sectors of the ruling class. Armed CNT militants stopped the coup in most of Spain; sections of the armed forces came over to the CNT, as did members of the moderate unions. A large CNT militia, numbering around 120,000, defended much of the country.
In the cities, CNT structures quickly took over large parts of industry. In Catalonia province, workers within hours seized control of 3,000 enterprises, including all public transportation, shipping, electric and power companies, gas and water works, engineering and automobile assembly plants, mines, cement works, textile mills and paper factories, electrical and chemical concerns, glass bottle factories and perfumeries, food processing plants and breweries. Most of these were placed under direct workers self-management through assemblies and committees. Where employers remained at the company, they were either made to report to workers’ control commissions, or to join the commission – in which case they were paid the same wage as everyone else, and decisions were made democratically. The workers’ control structures emerged directly out of CNT structures: crudely, CNT assembliesnow ran the factories, and the ‘shopstewards’ committees acted as the control committees. Then factories were linked up, first by industry and then by region: so, for example, the CNT metal union provided the means of coordinating the metal industry, and through the CNT, coordinated this with other industries.
The CNT also had an important impact, in this period, on the rank-and-file of the rival social democratic union, the General Union of Labour (UGT), who were also drawn into collectivisation en masse, especially in the countryside; in a number of cases, joint CNT-UGT collectives were established. In the countryside, perhaps two thirds of farmland came under various forms of bottom-up collectivisation: by some estimates, a further five to seven million people were involved here, besides the two million in the urban collectives.
This was not a system of nationalisation, in which the state took over, nor yet of privatisation, but of collectivisation, the roots of which lay deep in decades of preparation. The revolutionary period saw substantial changes in many areas of daily life. Income, in the collectives, was delinked from ownership, and to a large extent, from occupation: in urban areas, especially, people were ‘paid’ on the basis of family needs; in many rural areas, money was completely abolished. Divorce was made available, and CNT halls were sometimes used for revolutionary weddings. The CNT’s allies, Mujeres Libres (or ‘free women’) meanwhile ran further education and mobilisation campaigns among women.
There was a general effort to restructure work, to make it more pleasant, more healthy and less stressful: as an example, small and unhealthy plants were replaced by large, airy ones, which were cheaper as well as healthier. The unemployed were given work, with unemployment dramatically reduced while output increased and hours decreased. The collectives were not, it should be added, ‘owned’ by the workers – they were run by them; they could not be sold or rented out. It was the larger network of collectives, born of the CNT, that had possession; it was through congresses and conferences that changes could be made.
The larger project of the revolution stalled, however, for a range of reasons. One myth, that should be disposed of at once, was that the CNT and FAI lacked a concrete plan to remake society, or to defend, with coordinated military force, the revolutionary society. The CNT had organised a series of armed uprisings in the early 1930s, and developed a clandestine military structure coordinated through local, regional and finally, national, defence committees; its May 1936 congress reaffirmed the need for coordinated military action, based on the unions, in the event of revolution (for the CNT’s 1936 programme: CNT [May 1, 1936] n.d.; for a fuller critique of the claim that the CNT lacked a concrete programme or military perspectives, see van der Walt, 2011: 195-197). The CNT militias formed in 1936 emerged directly out of the earlier clandestine CNT military (Guillamón, 2014), just as the CNT collectives emerged directly from the CNT union branches.
First and foremost, the revolution stalled following a tactical decision in late 1936 to form a broad anti-fascist bloc against the (by no means defeated) army plotters. Significant moves towards planning the economy from the bottom-up did not develop far beyond the provincial level; the collectivisation of the financial sector was aborted; the CNT’s Popular Front allies sabotaged its collectives, slowly destroying the Revolution and demobilising the revolutionary spirit that had halted the coup of 1936; in the end, the Popular Front, now abandoned by the CNT syndicalism or anarchism, was itself crushed by the plotters of 1936, who instituted four decades of dictatorial repression.
The point of the above exposition is not to present the CNT as perfect, but to underline, rather, a core part of the constructive history of syndicalism: it showed that industry and agriculture could be run effectively without the profit motive, and without bureaucratic hierarchies, and that a working class, inspired by a great ideal, can remake the world.
To prove the CNT was flawed is possible; to draw critical lessons on its history is necessary; however, to dismiss the possible contribution of this and other syndicalist experiences to current labour challenges is, however, mistaken. Syndicalism has historically played a very important role in the history of the working class movement, not just in Spain, but elsewhere; it is a tradition that bears close scrutiny, for to ‘recall anarchism’, and anarcho-syndicalism, ‘which Leninist Marxism suppressed’, is, as Arif Dirlik argued, in his study of the Chinese movement, to rethink the very meaning and possibilities of the left tradition, and ‘recall the democratic ideals for which anarchism … served as a repository’ (1991: 3-4, also pp. 7-8).
This anarchist and syndicalist repository is one that bears investigation, not as a simple cure-all for all difficulties, but as a basis for reflection and renewal in labour movements and in scholarship. As part of confronting the challenges facing today’s unions, there is everything to be gained from broadening our understanding of the history and traditions of the labour movement. For scholars of labour studies and of industrial sociology, too, there is a need to pay greater attention to traditions like anarcho- and revolutionary syndicalism, both in theorising labour, and in understanding its pasts, presents, and possible futures.
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LUCIEN VAN DER WALT is a Professor of Industrial and Economic Sociology at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, South Africa. He has published widely on labour and left history, political economy, and anarchism and syndicalism. He is also involved in union and working class education. [email: email@example.com]
Recommended Citation van der Walt, Lucien (2014) “Reclaiming Syndicalism: From Spain to South Africa to Global Labour Today,” Global Labour Journal: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, p. 239-252. Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/globallabour/vol5/iss2/10