Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

The Syndicalist Encounter with Bolshevism

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

The Syndicalist Encounter with Bolshevism

Article excerpt


The Russian Revolution of 1917 represented a great opportunity for the international Left but also exacerbated tensions between those who argued for revolution from below via industrial action and those who supported the Leninist conception of the vanguard party. This article draws from previously secret Soviet archive material and focuses on the dialogues and tensions between organs of the nascent Bolshevik state and foreign syndicalist organisations post-1917 and the subsequent emergence of a distinctive anarcho-syndicalist current.

Keywords syndicalism, industrial associations, Bolshevism, Comintern, Profintern, 'the trade union question', ideological anarchism

This article is about the conflictual relationship of non-Russian syndicalist organisations with Bolshevism and the Communist International after the October Revolution.1 The term 'syndicalism' is defined as covering all of the tendencies whose self-perception gave precedence to the revolutionary trade union over the party, if not its complete replacement. This rather dismissive relationship to the organisational form of the party represented its main point of difference with the emergent communist movement. This does not mean that, aside from this main characteristic, there were not strong differences of opinion in syndicalist ranks. This could be assumed from the contemporary political language, which differentiated between Industrialists, Unionists and the 'actual' Syndicalists. In this way, one could differentiate between organisations in the 'craft trade union' tradition of the French CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), industrial unions like the North American IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) - who were better known as the 'Wobblies' - or rhe rhen British Shop Stewards, as well as the 'united (or unity) organisations'2 after the example of the German industrial unions, to say nothing of the more 'exotic' examples like supporters of the now forgotten Daniel DeLeon, who attributed to industrial associations equal rights alongside the party. These organisational differences may have influenced the relationships that particular groups forged with Bolshevism. Yet they were only a subordinate factor in the general feud about the main issue of whether trade union or party had priority in the class war. This article will not, however, deal with the complicated question of the anarchists' - who are often wrongly equated with syndicalists - relationship to the October Revolution, since they did not belong to such trade union organisations.3 Indeed, there were significant anarchist tendencies which strongly rejected work in the trade unions as, by their nature, they inclined to reformism. Before the First World War, the self designation - above all in Romance languages - was simply 'syndicalist'4, which meant nothing more other than trade union movement; perhaps for clarity, the adjective 'revolutionary' was rhen added. 'Anarcho-syndicalism' is then rhe later specific nexus of anarchism and syndicalism as first produced in the controversy about the Bolshevik revolution.

In summary, rhis article deals wirh revolutionary trade union associations which were self-sufficient and represented an 'industrial strategy', from wage struggles to the general strike. They were united in strident criticism of parliamentarianism and the bureaucratisation of the 'traditional' trade unions; in other words, wirh what we today would call rejection of indirect representation.5 This portrait of revolutionary unions has its main emphasis in southern Europe. Here, syndicalism dominated the trade-union movement in many areas and was, rhus, more influential than 'Marxism'. This does not mean rhat syndicalism was not represented in many other countries; but that it tended to be a minority current.

Before the First World War, the Bolsheviks followed the model of rhe 'orrhodox Marxism'of the German Social Democrats in their virulent rejection of syndicalism. …

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