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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]


The term syndicalism has French origins. In French, a syndicat is a trade union, usually a local union. The corresponding words in Spanish and Portuguese, sindicato, and Italian, sindacato, are similar. By extension, the French syndicalisme refers to trade unionism in general. The French General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail in French, CGT) came to use the term syndicalisme révolutionnaire or revolutionary syndicalism to describe its brand of unionism. Revolutionary syndicalism, or more commonly syndicalism with the revolutionary implicit, was then adapted to a number of languages by unionists following the French model. This transplantation of the term into languages in which the etymological link to unionism was lost, was frequently criticized. Critics of syndicalism in Northern and Central Europe seized upon this to characterize it as something non-native, even dangerous. When the Free Association of German Trade Unions (Freie Vereinigung deutscher Gewerkschaften in German, FVdG) endorsed syndicalism in 1908, it did not at first use the term for fear of using "foreign names".[3]

Syndicalism is used by some interchangeably with anarcho-syndicalism, reflecting the influence anarchists had at various times in some syndicalist organizations, particularly in France, Spain, and Italy. Ralph Darlington, however, suggests that anarcho-syndicalism be used specifically to refer to "syndicalist ideas and activity infused with a heavy dose of anarchist colouration." This term was first used in 1907, by socialists criticizing the political neutrality of the CGT, although it was rarely used until the early 1920s when communists used it disparagingly. Only from 1922 was it used by self-avowed anarcho-syndicalists.[4] Many scholars, including Darlington, Marcel van der Linden, and Wayne Thorpe, apply the term syndicalism to a number of organizations or currents within the labour movement that did not identify as syndicalist. They apply the label to one big unionists or industrial unionists in North America and Australia, Larkinists in Ireland, and groups that identify as revolutionary industrialists, revolutionary unionists, anarcho-syndicalists, or as a council movement. Van der Linden and Thorpe use syndicalism to refer to "all revolutionary, direct-actionist organizatons". Darlington proposes that syndicalism be defined as "revolutionary trade unionism". He adds that this definition does not encompass communist or socialist unions, because the syndicalist conception "differed from both socialist and communist counterparts in viewing the decisive agency of the revolutionary transformation of society to be unions, as opposed to political parties or the state and of a collectivised worker-managed socio-economic order to be run by unions, as opposed to political parties or the state." Finally, Darlington argues, as does van der Linden, that it is justified to group together organizations like the French CGT, the Spanish National Confederation of Labour (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo in Spanish, CNT), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States, and the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) because their similar modes of action or practice outweigh their ideological differences.[5]

Others, like Larry Peterson and Erik Olssen, disagree with this broad definition. According to Olssen, this understanding has a "tendency to blur the distinctions between industrial unionism, syndicalism, and revolutionary socialism". Peterson gives a much more restrictive definition of syndicalism based on five criteria:

  1. a preference for federalism over centralism,
  2. opposition to political parties,
  3. seeing the general strike as the supreme revolutionary weapon,
  4. favoring the replacement of the state by "a federal, economic organization of society",
  5. and seeing unions as the basic building blocks of a post-capitalist society.

This definition excludes the IWW and the Canadian One Big Union (OBU). Peterson proposes the broader category revolutionary industrial unionism to encompass syndicalism, groups like the IWW and the OBU, and the Free Workers' Union of Germany (Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands in German, FAUD) and the Union of Manual and Intellectual Workers (Union der Hand- und Kopfarbeiter in German), also from Germany. The defining commonality between these groups is that they sought to unite all workers in a general organization.[6]


The French CGT was the first self-avowed syndicalist organization. It was the model and inspiration for syndicalist groups throughout Europe and the world.[7]


Syndicalism was not informed by theory or a systematically elaborated ideology the same way socialism was by Marxism. Émile Pouget, a CGT leader, maintained that: "What sets syndicalism apart from the various schools of socialism – and makes it superior – is its doctrinal sobriety. Inside the unions, there is little philosophising. They do better than that: they act!" Similarly, Andreu Nin of the Spanish CNT proclaimed in 1919: "I am a fanatic of action, of revolution. I believe in actions more than in remote ideologies and abstract questions." This was partly rooted in a distrust of bourgeois intellectuals and wanting to maintain workers' control over the movement. Syndicalist thinking was elaborated in pamphlets, leaflets, speeches, and articles and in the movement's own newspapers such as the IWW's Industrial Worker, the Italian L'Internazionale, or the British Industrial Syndicalist Education League's (ISEL) Industrial Syndicalist. This writing consisted mainly in calls to action and discussions of tactics in class struggle. Syndicalists did not, however, disavow education. Working class education was important at least to committed activists. It was organized in the French bourses du travail, in IWW halls in the United States, and by the Plebs League and Labour Colleges in Britain. Nevertheless, the extent to which syndicalist positions reflected merely the views of leaders and to what extent those views positions were shared by syndicalist organizations' rank-and-file is not entirely clear.[8]

Capitalism and the state

The Pyramid of Capitalist System from 1911 illustrates the IWW's critique of capitalism.

Bill Haywood, a leading figure in the IWW, defined the union's purpose at its founding congress in 1905 as "the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism". Syndicalists held that society was divided into two great classes, the working class and the bourgeoisie. Their interests being irreconcilable, they must be in a constant state of class struggle. Tom Mann, a British syndicalist, declared that "the object of the unions is to wage the Class War". This war, according to syndicalist doctrine, was aimed not just at gaining concessions such as higher wages or a shorter working day, but at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.[9]

Syndicalists agreed with Karl Marx's characterization of the state as the "executive committee of the ruling class". They held that a society's economic order determined its political order and concluded that the former could not be overthrown by changes to the latter. Nevertheless, a number of leading syndicalist figures worked in political parties and some ran for elected office. Jim Larkin, the leader of the Irish ITGWU, was active in the Labour Party, Haywood in the Socialist Party of America. Yet, they saw the economic sphere as the primary arena for revolutionary struggle, while involvement in politics could at best be an "echo" of industrial struggle. They were skeptical of parliamentary politics. According to Father Thomas Hagerty, a Catholic priest and IWW leader, "dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and to my thinking it will never achieve it". Syndicalist trade unions declared their political neutrality and autonomy from political parties. Political parties, syndicalists reasoned, grouped people according to their political views, uniting members of different classes. Unions, on the other, hand were to be purely working class organizations, uniting the entire class, and could therefore not be divided on political grounds. The French syndicalist Pouget explained: "The CGT embraces – outside of all the schools of politics – all workers cognisant of the struggle to be waged for the elimination of wage-slavery and the employer class." In practice, however, this neutrality was more ambiguous. The CGT, for example, worked with the Socialist Party in the struggle against the Three-Year Law extending conscription. During the Spanish Civil War the CNT, which had declared that no one could represent it who had been a candidate for political office or had participated in political endeavors, was intimately connected with the Iberian Anarchist Federation (Federación Anarquista Ibérica in Spanish, FAI).[10]

Syndicalists opposed nationalism and militarism. French syndicalists viewed the Army as the primary defender of the capitalist order. In 1901, the CGT published a manual for soldiers encouraging desertion. Patriotism, syndicalists argued, was a means of integrating workers into capitalist society by distracting them from their true class interest. Such issues became all the more relevant during World War I. A number of anarchists issued the Manifesto of the Sixteen in support of the Allies in the war. The CGT and parts of the Italian USI supported their respective nation's war efforts. Most other syndicalists, however, opposed the war. "Let Germany win, let France win, it is all the same to the workers," José Negre of the CNT declared. Haywood held that: "It is better to be a traitor to your country than to your class".[11]

Class struggle, revolution, and post-revolutionary society

In the syndicalist conception, unions played a dual role. They were a organs of struggle within capitalism for better working conditions, but they were also to play a key role in the revolution to overthrow capitalism. Victor Griffuelhes expressed this at the CGT's 1906 congress in the following manner: "In its day-to-day demands, syndicalism seeks the co-ordination of workers' efforts, the increase of workers' well-being by the achievement of immediate improvements, such as the reduction of working hours, the increase of wages, etc. But this task is only one aspect of the work of syndicalism; it prepares for complete emancipation, which can be realised only by expropriating the capitalist class". For unions to fulfill this role, it was necessary that there be no bureaucrats inhibiting workers' militant zeal, "whose sole purpose in life seems to be apologising for and defending the capitalist system of exploitation", according to Larkin. Battling bureaucracy and reformism within the labor movement was a major theme for syndicalists. One expression of this was many syndicalists' rejection of collective bargaining agreements, which were thought to force labor peace upon workers and break their solidarity, though the Argentine Regional Workers' Federation (Federación Obrera Regional Argentina in Spanish, FORA) and the OBU did accept them and others began accepting them eventually. The Wobblie Vincent St. John declared: "There is but one bargain that the Industrial Workers of the World will make with the employing class – complete surrender of the means of production." Similarly, syndicalist unions did not work to build large strike funds, for fear that they would create bureaucracy separate from the rank-and-file and instill in workers the expectation that the union rather than they would wage the class struggle.[12]

Syndicalists disagreed on how to best form the unions they envisioned. Some, like the French radicals, worked within existing unions to infuse them with their revolutionary spirit. In the United Kingdom, ISEL pursued a similar strategy Some found the existing unions in their respective national contexts entirely unsuitable and built organizations of their own, a strategy that became known as dual unionism. American syndicalists formed the IWW, though William Z. Foster later abandoned the IWW after a trip to France and worked to gain influence in the established American Federation of Labor (AFL). In Ireland, the ITGWU broke away from a more moderate, and British-based, union. In Italy and Spain, syndicalists initially worked within the established union confederations before breaking away an forming the USI and the CNT respectively. But even then, at the local level the unions within which they operated remained essentially the same.[13]


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,[14] 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.[15] 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—in 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".[16] 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".[17]

See also


  1. ^ "Syndicalism - Definition of syndicalism by Merriam-Webster". 
  2. ^ "IISH - Archives". 
  3. ^ Darlington 2008, pg 4-5, Thorpe 2010, pg. 25-26.
  4. ^ Darlington 2009, pg. 31-33, Thorpe 2010, pg. 17, Berry 2002, pg. 134.
  5. ^ van der Linden/Thorpe 1990, pg. 1, Darlington 2008, pg. 5-7, van der Linden 1998, pg. 182-183.
  6. ^ Olssen 1992, pg. 108, Peterson 1981, pg. 53-56.
  7. ^ Thorpe 2010, pg. 17-18.
  8. ^ Darlington 2008, pg. 18-20, 47-48, Thorpe 1989, pg. 14-15.
  9. ^ Darlington 2008, pg 21-22.
  10. ^ Darlington 2008, pg. 22-28.
  11. ^ Darlington 2008, pg. 45-47.
  12. ^ Darlington 2008, pg. 28-31, van der Linden/Thorpe 1990, pg. 19.
  13. ^ Darlington 2008, pg. 31-32.
  14. ^ "(4) I.W.W Not a Syndicalist Organization". 
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Zeev Sternhell, Mario Sznajder, Maia Ashéri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution,(Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 93.


  • Bantman, Constance (2010). "From Trade Unionism to Syndicalisme Révolutionnaire to Syndicalism: The British Origins of French Syndicalism". In Berry, David; Bantman, Constance. New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour, and Syndicalism: The Individual, the National and the Transnational. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 126–140. 
  • Berry, David (2002). A history of the French anarchist movement, 1917–1945. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 
  • Darlington, Ralph (2008). Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism: An International Comparative Analysis. Aldershot: Ashgate. 
  • Darlington, Ralph (2009). "Syndicalism and the influence of anarchism in France, Italy and Spain". Anarchist Studies. 17 (2): 29–54. 
  • Olssen, Erik (1992). "Review of Revolutionary Syndicalism: An International Perspective, edited by Marcel van der Linden and Wayne Thorpe". International Review of Social History. 37 (1): 107–109. 
  • Peterson, Larry (1981). "The One Big Union in International Perspective: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism 1900–1925". Labour/Le Travail. 7: 41–66. 
  • Thorpe, Wayne (1989). "The Workers Themselves": Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour, 1913–1923. Amsterdam: Kluwer. 
  • Thorpe, Wayne (2001). "The European Syndicalists and War, 1914–1918". Contemporary European History. 10 (1): 1–24. 
  • Thorpe, Wayne (2010). "Uneasy Family: Revolutionary Syndicalism in Europe from the Charte d'Amiens to World War I". In Berry, David; Bantman, Constance. New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour, and Syndicalism: The Individual, the National and the Transnational. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 16–42. 
  • van der Linden, Marcel; Thorpe, Wayne (1990). "The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism". In van der Linden, Marcel; Thorpe, Wayne. Revolutionary Syndicalism: An International Perspective. Aldershot: Scolar Press. pp. 1–24. 
  • van der Linden, Marcel (1998). "Second thoughts on revolutionary syndicalism". Labour History Review. 63 (2): 182–196. 

Further reading

  • 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