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The Forgotten Tradition of French Sovietism

category france / belgium / luxemburg | history of anarchism | review author Monday March 30, 2015 22:49author by Michael Schmidt Report this post to the editors

a review of David Berry's A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917-1945

To an English-speaking outsider, the French anarchist movement - as distinct from the Francophone anarchist movement in North Africa, Vietnam, etc - is often viewed as the "mother" movement because of the massive CGT union federation which, under anarchist sway, amalgamated with the local Bourses du Travail in 1895, establishing an "apolitical" model of mass anarchosyndicalism that was replicated in Fracophile countries such as Poland and most of Europe and lands as far away as Brazil, Egypt and Senegal.

To an English-speaking outsider, the French anarchist movement - as distinct from the Francophone anarchist movement in North Africa, Vietnam, etc - is often viewed as the "mother" movement because of the massive CGT union federation which, under anarchist sway, amalgamated with the local Bourses du Travail in 1895, establishing an "apolitical" model of mass anarchosyndicalism that was replicated in Fracophile countries such as Poland and most of Europe and lands as far away as Brazil, Egypt and Senegal.

The French movement proved to be one of the largest, most influential and most durable of all anarchist movements; and apart from its suppression for four years during the Vichy era, it has operated uninterrupted from its rise in the trade unions of the First International in 1868 until today, where it still maintains a 24-hour radio station, several small anarchosyndicalist unions, research institutes, publishing houses, and a significant interlocking set of counter-cultural networks.

So for a French-speaker, seen from within, the movement while no longer hegemonic in the French labour movement as it was from 1895-1920, can even today provide a totally immersive socio-political experience. Which for a researcher often makes it difficult to see the wood for the trees. What makes the task more difficult is that the movement fragmented in 1920 and subsequently, faced with the prestige of post-1917 Bolshevism, so keeping an eye on *all* the different factional organisational responses to that is rare.

Berry's huge achievement is to provide a really holistic view of the fragmenting movement as it met the triple threat of reformism (the CGT at its peak in 1920 had 2,46-million members, larger than the famous Spanish CNT during the Spanish Revolution - but it was largely white-collar, very removed from its blue-collar origins), Bolshevism, and French fascism and Nazism.

While a majority of "pragmatic" apolitical syndicalists were happy to form an opposition within the reformist (including Bolshevik) union centres, in a self-defeating strategy, the explicitly revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist minority kept splitting away from these centres to form ever smaller purist federations, while alongside this, the "political" anarchist organisations grappled with the erosion of the mass movement's industrial base, resulting in some bitter schisms, especially between the tightly-organised "platformists" and the pluralistic "synthesists", a lively division that continues to this day.

The fragmentation of the movement also meant very different responses to crucial issues such as how to engage with the French ultra-right, the Spanish Revolution, and the Algerian liberation movement, with the platformists being for direct combat and the synthesists largely for critical support. Berry also does not shy away from the troubling question of those few anarchist individuals who collaborated with or were compromised by Vichy.

But Berry's greatest contribution to our understanding of French revolutionary politics of the interwar years regards the forgotten tradition of French Sovietism, a mass movement that tends to be overlooked by students of sovietism (council communism) in other areas such as Italy, Germany, Hungary, and even Britain. The movement had its roots in the hardline anarchocommunist and anarchosyndicalist resistance to the militarism of WWI, and flowered in May 1919 with the establishment of an anarchocommunist Parti Comuniste (PC). If this seems strange, bear in mind that similar anti-statist, anti-parliamentary, anti-authoritarian (and thus non-Bolshevik) PCs were established in the same period in Britain, Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, and arguably in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam, in each instance predating the "official" PCs.

The PC established rank-and-file networks within the CGT which lead to an Autonomous Regional Soviet appearing in Paris and holding a congress in December 1919 at which 35 such soviets from the capital and other parts of France were represented, defeating the Leninist line and reaffirming libertarian sovietism. This resulted in the formation of the Communist Federation of Soviets (FCS), with le Soviet (The Soviet) as its fortnightly mouthpiece. As Berry explains, the FCS was structured on workplace workers’ councils, which together with communities were represented in local soviets, which in turn were represented at regional soviets, with the overarching policy-making body being a congress of soviets to which only workers’ councils and local soviets sent delegations. Sadly, the FCS declined in 1921 with the founding of the official PC, whose members were mostly drawn from organisations to the right of the FCS such as the Socialist Party. Favourable revolutionary conditions would not appear in France again until 1968, by which time anarchism/syndicalism was a still-virile, yet fringe movement.

Berry's book is a crucial text for students not just of the anarchist / syndicalist / council communist movements, but of interwar French politics and unionism more broadly. I hope he follows it up with a book on the denouement of the post-war French anarchist movement to the current day.

author by L. Akaipublication date Wed Apr 01, 2015 19:45author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I just saw this one on Ainfos a few seconds ago and was wondering if it was an April Fool's joke. Because I certainly don't know of any CGT inspired mass ANARCHOsyndicalist movement in the history of Poland. This is really revisionism on a grand scale.

author by Michael Schmidtpublication date Thu Apr 09, 2015 00:37author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Hi Laure

The history of the Polish ZZZ is usually represented as a nationalist-leaning aberrant form of syndicalism, but Rafael Chwedoruk's studies on the subject challenge this view - even though he himself tends towards the conventional view. Allow me to expand, using an extract from my & Lucien van der Walt's forthcoming book on internationalist anarchist organisational history, Global Fire:

In 1930, the Pilsudski regime united several unions: nationalist, independent, socialist (including a small faction of the Polish Socialist Party and a workers’ faction that had broken with the Second International), and the GFP to form the Union of Trade Unions (ZZZ), the programme of which, according to Chwedoruk, “was a compromise between radical syndicalism and reformism, even solidarity,” the latter presumably meaning solidarity with the regime. Nevertheless, Chwedoruk noted that

"… the syndicalists became more and more socially radical in the era’s economic crisis. They supported and organised many strikes. The syndicalist wing dominated the ZZZ … It was a large centre (170,000 members) and had influence within certain industries (esp. in Schliesen in central Poland) – in construction, metal industry, military undertakings etc. The ZZZ declared for the class war … [yet] had a small parliamentary group …"

... The ZZZ was clearly a mixed organisation including conservatives clustered around Stanislaw Cat-Mackiewicz, editor of the journal Slowo (Word), but also embraced a significant anarcho-syndicalist current centred on the likes of tobacco worker Ignacy “Morus” Głuchowski (1892-1944), Polish Anarchist Federation militant teacher Władysław Głuchowski (1911-1941), former prisoner of the Russian Okhrana secret police Stefan “Szwed” Szwedowski (1891-1973), and agronomic draughtsman Tomasz “Janson” Alfons Pilarski (1902-1977).

The ZZZ published the journals Front Robotniczy (Workers’ Front) and Glos Pracownika Umyslowego (Intellectual Workers’ Voice) on the pages of which anarchists like Wieslaw Protschke (1913-1945) were active: an article by Protschke on Bakunin as a freedom fighter irritated Cat-Mackiewicz so much that he asked the police to intervene against “Bolsheviks in the ZZZ”.

Chwedoruk argues that Polish syndicalism was a strange hybrid, a “unique political doctrine” straddling “the border of national-Bolshevism and anarcho-syndicalism,” and “a weird mixture of nationalism, syndicalism and anarchism”. It is not clear whether this is because he appears to take the ZZZ as an undifferentiated whole, or whether it is because of the common error of counting as syndicalist those like the Zet youths under the sway of non-syndicalist ideas such as those of Sorel.

... From 1931 to 1939, the ZZZ established itself as a powerful force on the labour front, and expressed an interest in joining the IWA: the anarcho-syndicalist current within it was represented at the 1938 congress of the IWA in Paris in 1938 by Pilarski... The ZZZ was forced underground in 1939 by the Nazi-Soviet Pact invasion... Many of its anarchist members would come to play leading roles in the anti-Nazi resistance: Pilarski, a member of the anarcho-syndicalist FAUD in Silesia from 1919-1933, had even helped form the anti-Nazi “Black Ranks” (Schwarze Scharen) militia in 1929 before being forced to flee Germany under threat of execution for high treason.


Ok, I'll end there. In essence, the ZZZ starts out as a yellow union federation with an anarcho-syndicalist minority influenced by the line of the French CGT-Unitaire (much of Polish radicalism n this era is Francophile and many exiled Polish revolutionaries lived in Paris). This is no dout where some differences of interpretation come up: does one consider the CGT-Unitaire of 1922-1936 to be anarcho-syndicalist or reformist syndicalist or some other admixture?

Nevertheless during state-combated strikes in the mid-1930s, the conservative elements (in particular the munitions workers) withdrew from the ZZZ, driving it further leftwards and leaving it in the hands of the anarcho-syndicalists who by then had become the majority faction, which explains its pro-IWA turn in the late 1930s, until its suppression by the Nazis, though it reformed underground structures during the war.

In the final analysis, because the ZZZ was an organisation of class and not of tendency, it is entirely likely that even during its "anarcho-syndicalist phase" as a mass organisation from about 1934-1939, it still contained nationalist and social-democratic tendencies who somewhat ameliorated its growing radicalism. I'm also fairly sure that the real "revisionism" on the nature of the ZZZ relates directly to Soviet-era distortions of syndicalist history, and the usual Stalinist hostility to a historiography that has anyone but their favourites fighting the Nazis. I hope that helps?

Best regards

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