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"The Hand That Will Rule The World—One Big Union"

Syndicalism is a proposed type of economic system, considered a replacement for capitalism. It suggests that workers, industries, and organisations be systematized into confederations or syndicates, it is "a system of economic organization in which industries are owned and managed by the workers".[1] Its theory and practice is the advocacy of multiple cooperative productive units composed of specialists and representatives of workers in each field to negotiate and manage the economy.

For adherents, labour unions and labour training (see below) are the potential means of both overcoming economic aristocracy and running society in the interest of informed and skilled majorities, through union democracy. Industry in a syndicalist system would be run through co-operative confederations and mutual aid. Local syndicates may communicate with other syndicates through the Bourse du Travail (labour exchange), which would cooperatively determine distributions of commodities.

Syndicalism also refers to the political movement (praxis) and the tactic of bringing about this social arrangement, typically expounded by anarcho-syndicalism and De Leonism. It aims to achieve a general strike, a workers' outward refusal of their current modes of production, followed by organisation into federations of trade unions, such as the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). Throughout its history, the reformist section of syndicalism has been overshadowed by its revolutionary section, typified by the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) section of the CNT.[2]

Syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism[edit]

Syndicalism can be accurately divided into the purely economic-focused camp, exemplified by the Italian Unione Sindacale Italiana (ISI), the largest Italian syndicalist union in 1920, taking part in the Biennio Rosso[3] and the anarcho-syndicalism of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) taking both political and economic action, wishing to take control of both workplace and political life while syndicalism has traditionally focused on the economic sector alone.[4]

Although the terms anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism are often used interchangeably, the anarcho-syndicalist label was not widely used until the early 1920s (some credit Sam Mainwaring with coining the term), the term anarcho-syndicalist only came into wide use in 1921–1922, when it was applied polemically as a pejorative term by communists to any syndicalists "who opposed increased control of syndicalism by the communist parties".[5]

Traditionally, the revolutionary political syndicalism of figures such as Rudolph Rocker (widely credited as the father of anarcho-syndicalism) has overshadowed the more reformist or economically-focused syndicalism.

Related theories include anarchism, socialism, national syndicalism, Marxism, Leninism and communism.[citation needed]


Syndicalisme and sindicalismo are French and Spanish words meaning "trade unionism". More moderate versions of syndicalism were overshadowed in the early 20th century by revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism, which advocated, in addition to the abolition of capitalism, the abolition of the state, which its adherents expected syndicalist economics would make obsolete. Anarcho-syndicalism was most powerful in Spain in and around the time of the Spanish Civil War, but it also appeared in other parts of the world, such as in the United States-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose members are commonly referred to as "The Wobblies"; and the Unione Sindacale Italiana (Italian Syndicalist Union).

The earliest expressions of syndicalist structure and methods were formulated in the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) or First International, particularly in the Jura federation. In 1895, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in France fully expressed the organisational structure and methods of revolutionary syndicalism, influencing labour movements the world over. The CGT was modelled on the development of the Bourse de Travail (labour exchange), a workers' central organisation that encouraged self-education and mutual aid; and it facilitated communication with local workers' syndicates. Through a general strike, workers would take control of industry and services and self-manage society and facilitate production and consumption through the labour exchanges, the Charter of Amiens, adopted by the CGT in 1906, represents a key text in the development of revolutionary syndicalism rejecting parliamentarianism and political action in favour of revolutionary class struggle. The Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (SAC) (in Swedish the Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation), formed in 1910, is a notable example of an anarcho-syndicalist union influenced by the CGT. Today, the SAC is one of the largest anarcho-syndicalist unions in the world in proportion to the population, with some strongholds in the public sector.

The International Workers' Association, formed in 1922, is an international syndicalist federation of various labour unions from different countries. At its peak, it represented millions of workers and competed directly for the hearts and minds of the working class with social democratic unions and parties, the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) played a major role in the Spanish labour movement. It was also a decisive force in the Spanish Civil War, organising worker militias and facilitating the collectivisation of vast sections of the industrial, logistical and communications infrastructure, principally in Catalonia. Another Spanish anarcho-syndicalist[dubious ] union, the Confederacion General del Trabajo de España (CGTE), is now the fourth largest union in Spain and the largest anarchist[dubious ] union with tens of thousands of members.

Although explicitly not syndicalist,[6] the IWW was informed by developments in the broader revolutionary syndicalist milieu at the turn of the 20th century, at its founding congress in 1905, influential members with strong anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist sympathies like Thomas J. Hagerty, William Trautmann and Lucy Parsons contributed to the union's overall revolutionary syndicalist orientation.[7] In particular, Parsons was a veteran anarchist union organiser in Chicago from a previous generation, having participated in the struggle for the 8-hour day in Chicago and subsequent series of events which came to be known as the Haymarket Affair in 1886.

An emphasis on industrial organisation was a distinguishing feature of syndicalism when it began to be identified as a distinct current at the beginning of the 20th century. Due to a still-tangible faith in the viability of the state socialist system, most socialist groups of that period emphasised the importance of political action through party organisations as a means of bringing about socialism—in syndicalism, trade unions are thus seen as simply a stepping stone to common ownership. Although all syndicalists emphasise industrial organisation, not all reject political action altogether, for example, De Leonists and some other industrial unionists advocate parallel organisation both politically and industrially while recognising that trade unions are at a comparable disadvantage due to the lobby of business groups on political leaders. Syndicalism would historically gain most of its support in Italy, France and particularly Spain, where the anarcho-syndicalist revolution during the Spanish Civil War resulted in the widespread implementation of anarchist and more broadly socialist organisational principles throughout various portions of the country for two to three years, primarily Catalonia, Aragon, Andalusia and parts of the Levante. Much of Spain's economy was put under worker control—n anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%, their eventual defeat and World War II led to the formerly prominent theory being repressed as the three nations where it had the most power were now under fascist control. Support for syndicalism never fully recovered to the height it enjoyed in the early 20th century.

Georges Sorel, a prominent revolutionary syndicalist of the era, played a role in shaping the views of Benito Mussolini and by extension the wider Italian fascist movement. In March 1921, Sorel wrote that Mussolini was "a man no less extraordinary than Lenin",[8] after Sorel's death in 1922, Agostino Lanzillo, a one-time syndicalist leader who had become a fascist, wrote in the Italian fascist review Gerarchia, which was edited by Mussolini: "Perhaps fascism may have the good fortune to fulfill a mission that is the implicit aspiration of the whole oeuvre of the master of syndicalism: to tear away the proletariat from the domination of the Socialist party, to reconstitute it on the basis of spiritual liberty, and to animate it with the breath of creative violence. This would be the true revolution that would mold the forms of the Italy of tomorrow".[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Syndicalism - Definition of syndicalism by Merriam-Webster". 
  2. ^ "IISH - Archives". 
  3. ^ A page dealing with the Italian factory occupations in detail about the actions of the USI Archived June 16, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ describes anarcho-syndicalism in detail, strongly referenced Archived November 23, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ David Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917-1945, (Greenwood, 2002), p. 134. ISBN 0-313-32026-8
  6. ^ "(4) I.W.W Not a Syndicalist Organization". 
  7. ^ Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World (State University of New York Press, 1989), pp. 69-90, ISBN 0-7914-0089-1
  8. ^ J. L. Talmon, The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution: The Origins of Ideological Polarization in the 20th Century, (University of California Press, 1981), p. 451.
  9. ^ Zeev Sternhell, Mario Sznajder, Maia Ashéri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution,(Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 93.

Further reading[edit]

  • Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Quadrangle Books, 1969.
  • William Z. Foster, "The Socialist and Syndicalist Movements in France," Industrial Worker, vol. 3, no. 1, whole 105 (March 23, 1911), pp. 1, 4.
  • William Z. Foster, Syndicalism (with Earl Ford), Chicago, 1913.
  • Lenny Flank (ed), IWW: A Documentary History, St Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007.
  • Dan Jakopovich, Revolutionary Unionism: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, New Politics, vol. 11, no. 3 (2007).
  • James Joll, The Anarchists, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980.
  • Immanuel Ness, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, PM Press, 2014. ISBN 1604869569.
  • James Oneal, Sabotage, or, Socialism vs. Syndicalism. St. Louis, Missouri: National Rip-Saw, 1913.
  • David D. Robert, The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism, University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
  • Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, London, 1938; AK Press, 2004.
  • J. Salwyn Schapiro, Liberalism and The Challenge of Fascism, Social Forces in England and France (1815–1870),New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1949.
  • Lucien van der Walt & Michael Schmidt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, AK Press, 2009.

External links[edit]