Another View: Syndicalism, Anarchism and Marxism1

By McKay, Iain | Anarchist Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Another View: Syndicalism, Anarchism and Marxism1

McKay, Iain, Anarchist Studies

This article is a response to Ralph Darlington's essay 'Syndicalism and the influence of Anarchism in France, Italy and Spain' (AS 17(2), 2009) and was originally planned as part of a debate. Unfortunately, Ralph Darlington was unable to participate.


In the AS special issue on syndicalism, Ralph Darlington seeks to downplay anarchist influence on syndicalism while also suggesting that Marxism was one of its core ideological elements. He ignores both the more obvious influence of Bakunin on the syndicalist tradition and that Marx and Engels explicidy rejected the syndicadist ideas expounded by libertarians in the First International. The supposed conceptions syndicalism is claimed to have inherited from Marxism can all be found in the revolutionary anarchist tradition. Rather than syndicalist ideas being inherited from Marxism, they arose from a large anarchist movement in the 1860s and subsequently influenced a wing of Marxism decades later.

Keywords: anarchism, syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism, revolution, unionism, Marxism, Bakunin, Marx

the anarchists ... do not seek to constitute, and invite die working men not to constitute, political parties in the parliaments. Accordingly, since die foundation of the International Working Men's Association in 1864-66, they have endeavoured to promote their ideas direcdy amongst die labour organisations and to induce those unions to a direct struggle against capital, without placing dieir faidi in parliamentary legislation.

Peter Kropotkin, The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 19102


Ralph Darlington's article in AS 17 (2) tries to defend a provocative assertion in a journal dedicated to studying anarchism, namely that 'the traditional assumption ... diat syndicalism was simply an outgrowth of anarchism would be an over-simplification' (p.30).3 He does so by presenting two main lines of argument. Firsdy, that 'Marxism also influenced' syndicalism 'significandy to varying degrees', going so far as to list it as one of its 'three core ideological elements' (p.46) alongside anarchism and revolutionary unionism. Secondly, that in 'many other countries where syndicalist movements also flourished (for example, Britain, Ireland or America), anarchist influence was only of marginal consequence' (p.30).

Bodi claims, I would argue, are deeply flawed. The first is simply an assertion, wirh no supporting evidence, and ignores not only the more obvious influence of Bakunin's revolutionary anarchism but also Marx and Engels' explicit rejection of key syndicalist ideas raised by libertarians in the International Working Men's Association (IWMA). It also stands at odds with a weU-established scholarly literature that, whde admitting the affinities between some forms of Marxism and syndicalism, nonetheless draws a direct and traceable linkage between anarchism and syndicalism.4 The second confuses the spread of syndicalist ideas and dieir acceptance by Marxists with a pre-existing ideological influence. As such, it cruciaUy ignores the element of time. That a few Marxists found syndicalism more appealing than Social Democratic orrhodoxy during the period of the Second International, some twenty years after the IWM As coUapse, does not support die retroactive claim that syndicalism was indebted to Marx and Engels.


The first assertion is that 'syndicalism was always an aUiance between at least three core ideological elements', one of which was Marxism which 'influenced it significandy to varying degrees'. More precisely, 'a number of syndicalist movement leaders inherited some centrd components of the Marxist tradition' (with die useful qualifier of 'in however a diffuse form') (pp.46-7).

This influence was twofold. First was 'the Marxist conception of the necessity and desirabdity of class struggle (of which strdees were the primary expression) as a means of coUective resistance to capitalism that could develop die confidence, organisation and class consciousness of workers'.

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Another View: Syndicalism, Anarchism and Marxism1


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