SYNDICALISM

By Louis Levine, North American Review, 196:9-19. July, 1913.

The world has been startled of late by the appearance of a new actor in the drama of social life. Coming at a juncture when he was least expected, the new dramatis persona at once upset the situation which he found and began accelerating the movement of events and passions. He came but yesterday, but his determined planning and intense action have already made it clear that he has a momentous part to play and that the development of the social drama will in no small measure depend upon what he wills and does.

This new dramatis persona is the Syndicalist. But a short while ago he may have been considered a peculiar product of that peculiar country, France, which has furnished the world for nearly a century with "freakish" social ideas and "fantastic" social schemes. But now no one can any longer hold that view. The Syndicalist has invaded "common-sense" England and has raised his voice in the "land of the free." He has become an international figure, and his ideas are of significance to the entire world.

Taken by surprise, however, the world has not had an opportunity as yet properly to measure the new-comer, to find out what he wants. In fact, the task is not so easy. It would seem that the Syndicalist really had nothing to wish that had not already been supplied. It would seem that in a world where Trade-Unionist, Social Reformer, Socialist, and Anarchist vied with, one another in curing all the social evils of the times, no new brand of "ism" was possible and no room left for an "ist" of a new kind. The fact, however, cannot be argued away: the new "ist" is here and proclaims he has a new message for the world. There must be, then, something in Syndicalism which differentiates it from any other known "ism", and the question naturally arises, What is it?

In a general way the answer may be given at the very outset. Syndicalism is an attempt to combine Socialism and Trade-Unionism in a higher synthesis in which the labor unions should become the basis of Socialism, and Socialism the ideal expression of the unions. Such a synthesis necessarily presupposes certain modifications in the structure and ideas of both Socialism and Trade-Unionism, and, like every other synthesis, contains something that was not present in its constituent elements.

The Syndicalist synthesis cannot be regarded as an entirely sudden phenomenon in the world of social thought and practice. On the contrary, it can be traced back to the "International Association of Working-men" founded in 1864, and even further back to the first half of the nineteenth century when both Socialism and Trade-Unionism were making their first awkward steps. It is not at all strange that this should be so. Syndicalism is the child of peculiar conditions and of a peculiar psychology closely bound up with Socialism and Trade-Unionism. It is but natural, therefore, that it should be found in some rudimentary form in the early stages of the social movement of the nineteenth century and that the Syndicalism of to-day should be the mature fruit of seeds sown long ago.

It will be easier to understand the nature of the fruit by first analyzing the seed and by examining the environment in which it struck root and grew. The seed was the idea of Socialism. Ever since the problem of labor in its modern phase arose, in the early part of the nineteenth century, one solution offered was to solve the labor problem by dissolving the wages system. As a rule, this solution came from the so-called better, and certainly better educated, classes of society who were deeply moved by the sufferings of the working-class. Accustomed to abstract and general reasoning, these representatives of the middle classes and of the aristocracy sought for the general causes of the social evils and found them, in the institution of private property and in competition. They therefore called upon society to do away with private property and to reorganize industry on the basis of collective solidarity and collective responsibility. As a recompense for following their advice, they held out to the world the promise of a new social era in which Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity would truly reign supreme.

Born amidst the upper classes, the idea of Socialism soon swept a portion of the working-class. A number of intelligent, active, and ambitious working-men were charmed and fascinated by the grand visions of Socialism and became ardently devoted to the cause of emancipating their fellow-working-men from the "thraldom" of the wages-system. The ideal of industrial freedom, social equality, and intellectual opportunities thrilled their souls with the deepest enthusiasm, and they felt themselves to be the inspired leaders in a great historic movement which, in their opinion, was to liberate their class and to rejuvenate the world.

The militant Socialist working-man soon found out, however, that his task was not easy and that his situation was full of inner contradictions. In the Socialist organizations of all types—secret, revolutionary, educational, and so forth—which he frequented he was at all times thrown together with more or less numerous descendants of the middle class who were attracted to Socialism for various reasons and who claimed the part of intellectual leaders in the Socialist movement. These "intellectuals," as they were dubbed by the working-men, surely possessed superior lights and were better fit by training and experience for the role of leaders. The Socialist working-man was loath, however, to acknowledge this. Awakened to a sense of the historical importance of his class, enthused by the idea of social equality, thrilled by the sentiment of his own intellectual growth, he resented any suggestion of inequality within the Socialist ranks themselves, and watched with suspicion and ill feeling the tendency of the "intellectuals" toward leadership and predominance. He could not at all times effectively counteract it. But he was ready always to turn upon the middle-class "intellectuals," to whose intuition and reasoning he owed the idea of Socialism, and to start a movement in which his own predominance would not be threatened. This tendency, on the part of the militant Socialist working-man, runs like a thread through the whole history of modern Socialism.

On the other hand, turning to his own class, the militant Socialist working-man soon convinced himself that he could not get at once the response he so hopefully expected. The large mass of the working-class was actuated by simpler and more elementary motives. It wanted some improvement right now and here, it cared more for things than for principles, it had a keener feeling for the pangs of the stomach than for the pains of the heart or brain. The Socialist working-man regretted and deplored this state of affairs, but he could not ignore it. After all, he was a working-man himself, who knew by bitter experience what it meant to be in want. He had to adapt himself, therefore, to the conditions and psychology of his class and to take an interest in their immediate demands if he wanted them to take an interest in his far-away ideal. As a rule, the mass of the workers hit independently upon the means of improving their immediate condition—means which hinged upon the idea of combination and organization, and which resulted in the rise and development of Trade-Unionism. The militant Socialist working-man was thus driven to do his share in the work of the Trade-Unions, for there was no hope for him outside the ranks of his own class.

But entering the Trade-Union, the Socialist working-man never lost sight of his ideal. Nor did he lose his impatience with existing conditions or his feverish hope to bring about his ideal as soon as possible. He was a Social Faust within whose breast two souls resided—one clinging to the sufferings and demands of his class in the present, the other sweeping "the dust of the present above into the high spaces" of Socialism in the future. But, like Faust, he was not content to have his breast rent in twain. On the contrary, he was intent upon realizing, as soon as possible, a harmonious union of the conflicting feelings, ideas, and aspirations which his peculiar economic, political, and intellectual existence called into being.

The history of the Socialist movement reveals the gropings of the militant Socialist working-man for the unity just spoken of, and this is why rudimentary Syndicalist ideas may be found all along in the social movement of the nineteenth century. But before Syndicalism could assume its present developed form, it was necessary that the conditions described above should become more pronounced and accentuated. This was brought about in the latter part of the past century by a complicated chain of economic, political, and other causes.

In the nineties of the past century the Socialists had their first big electoral successes in France, Germany, and other countries. They not only polled a large number of votes, but succeeded in electing many of their members to the national and municipal legislative bodies. The result was a change in the composition and character of the Socialist parties. The latter were everywhere invaded by large and new sections of the middle class, particularly by representatives of the liberal professions such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and so forth, who swamped the Socialist working-men in all positions of authority and responsibility in the Socialist party, Socialist press, and Socialist parliamentary groups. The invading "intellectuals" carried with them their group feelings, their habits of mind, and their methods of procedure. They introduced into the Socialist movement the ideas of slow evolutionary changes, of a gradual "growing-in" into Socialism, of peaceful and diplomatic negotiations with "capitalist" political parties. They extolled the importance and influence of legislative bodies in which they could display their general knowledge, oratorical powers, and resplendent qualities. In a word, they imparted to Socialism that exclusively political and legislative character—smooth and moderate—which has in recent years both surprised and soothed the world.

At the same time the political Socialists were not slow to show their intention of subordinating the economic organizations of the working-class to the political party. To the political Socialist the Trade-Union could not but appear as a secondary organization which wrangles with employers over minor matters and which is insignificant in comparison with the great political organization. The political Socialist could value the Trade-Union mainly as a field for recruiting new Socialist converts and could expect nothing more from an organization which, in his opinion, was to disappear after the triumph of Socialism and which could play but a subordinate part in the movement toward Socialist victory to be brought about by capturing the political machinery of the State.

The change in the character of Socialism—its marked evolution in the direction of an exclusively political, peaceful, and legal movement—blazed into fire the embers of discontent which had slumbered in the breast of the militant Socialist working-man. The latter was alarmed by the success of political Socialism, which, in his opinion, was dangerous to the real success of the Social Revolution. The militant working-man suspected the environment of Parliament, its methods and political trickery, and felt in his heart a growing antagonism to a form of action which led the Socialists into the stifling embrace of "capitalist" parliamentary institutions. The militant Socialist working-man therefore began to look about for another form of social movement which would embody his revolutionary spirit, preserve his hope of a speedy emancipation, and secure for him equality within the organization. He had groped for such a movement for years and years. He had organized secret revolutionary societies, he had tried Socialist co-operatives, he had attempted open revolt. But his previous attempts had been unsuccessful, and, furthermore, former methods were no longer applicable under the new conditions of the latter part of the nineteenth century. The militant working-man saw that the development of democracy and the expansion of industry had made necessary a form of organization which would be broad enough to include large masses and flexible enough to be capable of both political and economic action. Examining more closely the nature of the Trade-Union in which he had always played some part, the militant Socialist working-man was struck by the idea that it offered the form of organization he was so eagerly looking for and that it was capable of carrying on the social movement in which he placed his hopes. He therefore now changed his former attitude to the Trade-Union; instead of merely suffering it, he now began actively to support it and to shape it in accordance with his views and aspirations.

By a process of careful reasoning and under the influence of experience the militant Socialist working-man gradually developed the whole theory of Syndicalism in which the Syndicator labor union—is the basis, end, and means. The Syndicat—according to this theory—is the organization which first brings the working-men together, binds them by ties of common interest, develops in them the sentiment of solidarity, and consolidates them into a coherent self-conscious class. Organized in the Syndicats, the working-men are in a position to enter into a direct struggle with employers and the State for better conditions of life and work. Direct action—which the Syndicalists so much insist upon—consists in exerting energetic pressure and coercion on the employers and the State in such a manner as to rally all the workers around one banner in direct opposition to existing institutions. Nation-wide strikes, vehement agitation, public demonstrations, and like procedures, which arouse passions and shake up the mass of the working-men, are in the view of the Syndicalists the only methods which can make the working-men clearly perceive the evils and contradictions of present-day society and which lead to material successes. Such methods alone drive home to the working-men the truth that the emancipation of the workers must and can be the work of the workers themselves, and free the latter from the illusion that anybody else—even their representatives in Parliament—can do the job for them. By constantly bringing working-men into open and sharp conflict with employers, Direct Action, in all its manifestations, necessarily undermines the foundations of existing society and fortifies the position of the working-class. Every successful strike, every victory of labor—when gained by energetic pressure and Direct Action—is regarded by the Syndicalists as a blow directed against capitalism and as a strategic point occupied by the workers on their way toward final emancipation. Reforms, therefore, gained and upheld by Direct Action do not strengthen existing society, but, on the contrary, dilapidate it and pave the way for a complete and violent social transformation.

The latter, in the opinion of the Syndicalists, is inevitable. The direct struggles of the Syndicats—argue they—increasing in scope and importance, must finally lead to a decisive collision in which the two antagonistic classes—the working-class and the employers—will be brought face to face. How that decisive struggle will be begun cannot be foretold. But it most probably will have its origin in a strike which, spreading from industry to industry and from locality to locality, will involve the whole country and affect the entire nation. This will be the General Strike, in which the issue will not be an increase of wages or any other minor matter, but the paramount social issue: who shall henceforth control industry and direct the economic activities of the nation?

The Syndicalists will not wait for Parliament to decide that question, but will take matters into their own hands. When the "final hour of emancipation" strikes, the militant working-men organized in the Syndicats will step in and assume control of all means of production, transportation, and exchange. They will proclaim the common ownership of all means of production, and will start production under the direction of the Syndicats. Every Syndicat will have the use of the means of production necessary for carrying on its work. All Syndicats of a locality will be organized in local federations which will have charge of all local industrial matters. These local Federations of Labor will collect statistics pertaining to local production and consumption, will provide the raw material, and will act as intermediaries between a locality and the rest of the country. All Syndicats of the country in any one industry will be organized in a National Industrial Federation having charge of the special interests of the industry, while local federations and industrial federations will be organized in one great National Federation of Labor which will take care of matters national in scope and importance.

This ideal, according to the Syndicalists, is not a scheme or a Utopia whose realization depends upon the good-will or wisdom of any individual or individuals. It is a social system gradually evolved by the Syndicalist movement and gradually prepared by the social struggles of to-day. The framework of the ideal organization is being built every day by the growth of organization among the working-men, by the ever-spreading network of Syndicats, local, industrial, and national federations. And the intellectual and moral qualities necessary for controlling society are gradually acquired by the working-men in their organizations, in their struggle, and in their every-day experiences.

Here, in this theory, the militant working-man finally achieved the synthesis he was groping for. The Syndicat—or labor union—kept out the middle class "intellectual," barred the politician, and made compromise impossible. On the other hand, it secured the leadership of the revolutionary working-man, brought him into a direct struggle with employers and the State, and offered him the image of his future ideal society. It prominently held before him the fact that his salvation lay in his own hands, in the weapons forged by himself, in Direct Action and the General Strike. The Syndicalist working-man could, therefore, now counteract the "pernicious" influence of the political Socialist and work for the social revolution in his own way and through his own organizations. The cause of the working-men was now in safe hands, and his profound yearning for a speedy social emancipation was gratified.

There are several reasons why Syndicalism first developed in France and why it achieved there its most notable success. France, before other countries, witnessed those changes in the character of Socialism which were described above. France was the first country to have a Socialist Minister, M. Millerand, and to reveal the "demoralizing" effects of Parliament on the Socialists. France, besides, is rich in revolutionary traditions which at all times fed the revolutionary feelings of the militant working-men. Thirdly, the French Syndicats began to develop only at the time when Socialism was becoming insufficient for the militant working-men, and the latter had therefore little difficulty in capturing the Syndicats. When the General Confederation of Labor (La Confederation Generale du Travail) was formed in 1895, it was soon brought under the combined influence of Socialist and Anarchist working-men, who steered the organization in the direction of revolutionary methods and Syndicalist ideas. The success of the General Confederation was due to their energetic action and devotion, and the influence of their ideas grew in consequence. The General Confederation has grown steadily since 1902, and has now about 500,000 members. It consists of local and industrial federations which in their turn are composed of single Syndicats, and presents, from the Syndicalists' point of view, the embryo of the future society.

In England the situation is somewhat different. Syndicalist's ideas had their exponents among English working-men before, and a Syndicalist paper, The Voice of Labor, was published in 1907. But Syndicalism did not make headway in England until Tom Mann, an experienced labor-leader, was converted to the new ideas. Tom Mann had spent some years in the labor movement of Australia, and was disappointed by the slowness, uncertainty, and trickery of the political game which the Australian working-men played in the hope of achieving their ends. He then went to France and underwent there the influence of the Syndicalists. Since then Tom Mann has been actively propagating Syndicalist ideas in England. He started a monthly, the Industrial Syndicalist, in 1910, and under his influence a Syndicalist organization, "The Industrial Syndicalist Education League," was formed in Manchester toward the end of 1910. The "Syndicalist Education League" is now publishing The Syndicalist—a monthly devoted to the propaganda of Syndicalism in England. The new ideas have found numerous adherents, particularly among the working-men of the building trades, the transport-workers, and the miners. In November, 1910, the English Syndicalists held their first conference in Manchester at which 60,000 workers were represented. Since then their numbers have undoubtedly increased and new industrial groups have been gained. The recent strikes in England show that at least Syndicalist forms of organization and methods are forced upon the working-men by the powerful combinations of employers and by the rather ambiguous policy of the Government. The further development of Syndicalism in England will depend on the success with which the convinced Syndicalists will be able to "bore from within" and to steer the 'Trade-Unions in the direction of the new doctrine, while the success of their efforts will depend on economic and political conditions.

In America the specter of Syndicalism first appeared in the Lawrence strike. The American Syndicalists, the Industrial Workers of the World, who directed the strike in Lawrence, have been attracting more and more attention since and have been trying to make Syndicalism a factor in American life. American Syndicalism should not be regarded as an importation from France. Of course, American Syndicalists have been more or less in contact with French Syndicalists, but the movement has grown up on American soil and can be traced back to the Knights of Labor. The latter had already formed a vague idea of industrial organization which is so actively propagated by the Industrial Workers of the World. Craft Unionism, however, carried the day in America after 1886, and achieved marked success in the development of the American Federation of Labor. The idea of Industrial Unionism, nevertheless, never died out, and in recent years has been gaining ground under the influence of favorable economic conditions. Finding support among Socialist working-men, the idea of Industrial Unionism was combined with the Socialist conception, and a theory resembling French Syndicalism in the most essential points was the result. This theory was made the basis of the programme adopted by the I. W. W. in 1905.

The Industrial Workers of the World differ, however, from the French Syndicalists in their attitude toward the General Strike. The former conceive the Social Revolution not as a stoppage from work, but as a "staying at work."*) According to this idea the working-men will one day declare the means of production common property, but, instead of leaving the factories, will stay there to continue production on a Socialist basis. The difference, however, is rather verbal, for any act having for its purpose such a tremendous change will lead to the interruption of industrial activities at least for some time. The I. W. W. are, besides, more in favor of passive resistance and of other forms of struggle which, though less demonstrative and noisy than the methods of the French Syndicalists, are believed to give the workers a strategic advantage over employers.

Syndicalism is primarily a working-class movement having for its end the solution of the labor problem. But its plans are so far-reaching and involve such profound social changes that society as a whole is necessarily affected. What has, then, Syndicalism to offer to those classes of society which are not occupied in manual labor?

The Syndicalists have recently given some attention to this problem. They have solved it by extending the meaning of labor so as to include all productive work. Teachers, doctors, artists, clerks, and the like have been organized into Syndicats and have joined the army of organized workers. The Syndicalists propose to organize in the same way all those who do some useful work for society, or, as they express it, to "Syndicalize" society. Their idea is to transform society into a federation of self-governing productive groups working together for the benefit of all with instruments belonging to society as a whole and under the supreme control of the community.

From the political point of view, therefore, Syndicalism must be regarded as an attempt to transform the existing political state into an industrial federation. Syndicalism hopes thereby to do away with the arbitrary and coercive aspects of the modern State and to inaugurate an era of expert public service when every man will do his share of the work of society in that field alone in which his knowledge and skill are greatest.

Syndicalism is ready to fight any organization opposed to it and ambitious to absorb all that are friendly to it. It must, therefore, necessarily arouse the hostility not only of the conservative elements of society, but even of reformers and political Socialists.

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Transcribed by J. D. Crutchfield from Bloomfield, ed., Modern Industrial Movements (1919), 40-50.

Last updated 18 April 2004.