Sunday, February 09, 2014

Ralph Darlington - Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism

This book deals with the ideas of Revolutionary Syndicalism, ideas that were in part responsible for mass movements involving millions of workers in the first few decades of the twentieth century. This was a period when in many different countries, workers and their organisations, were faced with the challenge of world war, conscription, mass unemployment and repression from their governments and bosses. The struggles that Syndicalists took part in, the battles they won and lost, their ideas, innovation and solidarity form a core of this book.

But Ralph Darlington hasn't just written a history of the Syndicalists. He has tried to explore "the different conceptions of capitalism, revolution and socialism held by the syndicalist and communist traditions, and the way in which an entire theoretical and organisational heritage was remade on the road from syndicalism to communism." Coming from a revolutionary Marxist point of view, Darlington has tried to examine the types of workers movements and organisations that are needed to defeat capitalism, drawing on the lessons of Syndicalism and the debates that they took part in after the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Syndicalists arose from the deep cynicism with which many radicals in the workers movement saw existing workers organisations. At the dawn of the twentieth century, political parties of the left were dominated by reformist tendencies, preaching the language of socialism but in rarely challenging the system. Trade unions, often mass organisations, too were geared less to fighting for even the short term interests of workers, preferring to organise in support of reformists interests. The existence of a bureaucratic layer of officials in the unions created a conservative layer that held back the movement at crucial times.

Syndicalists, in different countries and in various different ways tried to create workers organisations that could break from the existing practice. Revolutionary to the core, these organisations hoped to create mass unions that could, through a enormous general strike, bring down capitalism and introduce socialism. Frequently Syndicalists were prepared to engage in radical, mass action. Action, that could and did win and which led to the growth of such organisations. Frequently Syndicalist unions drew into action workers who were unorganised, or were considered unorganisable. Agricultural workers, those on short contracts, or immigrant labour. The growth might be explosive:

"In America for brief periods the IWW involved many thousands of workers in their organisation. Nonetheless, one year after its 1905 foundation membership was down from 23,000 to 14,500... It was not until 1909 that the Wobblies began to experience rapid growth arising from their free-speech campaigns and increased strike intervention... During 1916-1917 this leapt to 75,000 and it is estimated that by the end of the summer of 1917, at their height, they had between 125-150,000."


"It seems likely some workers may have readily subscribed to the methods of syndicalism (especially 'direct action') rather than necessarily the revolutionary aims of the movement. The immediate demands of the syndicalists, ostensibly a prelude to a revolutionary reconstruction of society may have seemed to individual militants a more sensible strategy for securing reforms in the meantime than the activities of those in the labour movement dedicated to the mere attainment of such reforms."

A further problem was the tendency to reject politics. This meant that frequently syndicalists concentrated on workplace struggles, or looked towards the future control of production, but ducked wider questions of political struggle. The example of World War One is informative here. Many syndicalists were powerfully anti-war, yet few seemed prepared to risk their organisation. The IWW is a case in point. As the IWW discussed calling a general strike against the entry of the US into the war, and the refusal to support workers going to fight for the capitalists, the editor of the IWW's newspaper responded:

"In case of war we want One Big Union... to come out of the conflict stronger and with more industrial control than previously. Why should we sacrifice working class interests of the sake of a few noisy and impotent parades or anti-war demonstrations. Let us rather get on with the job of organising the working class to take over the industries, war or no war, and stop all future capitalist aggression."

Such words sound very revolutionary, yet in practice they are a recipe for inaction.

Part two of Darlington's book looks at the experience of syndicalism following the Russian Revolution and the attempts by the Bolsheviks to engage the mass workers movements into revolutionary struggles. Darlington doesn't simply reject the syndicalists, like the best of the leading Bolsheviks, he understands that their was immense potential for the two groups learning from each other. Indeed many leading syndicalists like Bill Haywood or Alfred Rosmer joined the new Communist Parties.

Haywood said in April 1921, for instance,

"'I feel as I'd always been there... You remember I used to say that all we needed was 50,000 real IWW's and then about a million members to back them up? Well isn't that a similar idea [to the Bolshevik model]? At least I always realised that the essential thing was to have an organisation of those who know.'"

But Darlington also understands that a revolutionary workers movement cannot simply abstain from big political questions, such as the role of the state or the need for revolutionary organisation. Leon Trotsky, in very fraternal exchanges made this point;

"It is quite self-evident that a continued 'denial' of politics and of the state by French syndicalism would constitute a capitulation to bourgeois parties and to the capitalist state. It is not enough to deny the state-it is necessary to conquer the state in order to surmount it. The struggle for the conquest of the state apparatus is - revolutionary politics. To renounce it is to renounce the fundamental tasks of the revolutionary class."

Darlington too writes in this fraternal way. He starts from the same rejection of reformist methods and organisations that so infuriated the syndicalists. But he also draws on the lessons of the various radical movements in the early twentieth century in an attempt to find a strategy that can win. In doing so he celebrates the struggles of the syndicalists, but finds their strategies wanting. As a result, this book is an excellent discussion of the type of trade union struggle we need, but also the revolutionary parties that must be built.

Related Reviews

Darlington and Lyddon - Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain in 1972
Cliff and Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union struggle: The General Strike of 1926

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