Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Syndicalism and the Influence of Anarchism in France, Italy and Spain

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Syndicalism and the Influence of Anarchism in France, Italy and Spain

Article excerpt


A commonly held assumption is that anarchism as a revolutionary movement tends to emerge in politically, socially and economically underdeveloped regions and that its appeal lies with the economically marginalised lumpenproletariat and landless peasantry. This article critically explores this assumption through a comparative analysis of the development and influence of anarchist ideology and organisation in syndicalist movements in France, Italy and Spain and its legacy in discourses surrounding the nature of political authority and accountability.

Keywords syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism, revolution, unionism, France, Spain, Italy

Many historians have emphasised the extent to which revolutionary syndicalism was indebted to anarchist philosophy in general and to Bakunin in particular, with some even using the term anarcho-syndicalism' to describe the movement.1 Certainly within the French, Italian and Spanish syndicalist movements anarchists or so-called 'anarcho-syndicalists' were able to gain significant, albeit variable, influence. They were to be responsible in part for the respective movements' rejection of political parties, elections and parliament in favour of direct action by the unions, as well as their conception of a future society in which, instead of a political state apparatus, the only form of government would be the economic administration of industry exercised directly by the workers themselves. Other features of the syndicalist movements in these three countries, such as federalism, anti-clericalism and anti-militarism, were also profoundly influenced by specifically anarchist ideas and organisation.2 However if Marxism was a convergence of German philosophy, British political economy and French socialism,3 the traditional assumption, by contrast, that syndicalism was simply an outgrowth of anarchism, would be an oversimplification, even though the two were certainly directly related inside the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in France, the Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI) in Italy and the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) in Spain. But in many other countries where syndicalist movements also flourished (for example, Britain, Ireland or America), anarchist influence was only of marginal consequence.

After a brief clarification of the terms syndicalism' and 'anarcho-syndicalism', this article outlines the development of anarchist ideological and organisational influence within the syndicalist movements in France, Italy and Spain, and considers some of the factors that encouraged die development of syndicalist movements and anarchist influence within them. It re-examines two common assumptions made about the relationship between syndicalism and anarchism, including: (a) the widely favoured explanation for the success of a distinctive 'anarcho-syndicalist' movement in Spain and Italy, and to a lesser extent France - namely that it was a logical consequence of these countries' social and economic backwardness; and (b) the common perception that the residual strength of syndicalism (including its anarcho-syndicalist forms) lay not with the industrial working class, but with economically marginalised, often unskilled and unorganised, workers. Finally the article provides evidence to suggest that if the development of revolutionary syndicalism was directly related to anarchist ideas and organisation, it was far from simply being an anarchist invention and it is important not to conflate the one into the other.4


There is often a great deal of misunderstanding about the meaning of the terms 'syndicalism' and 'anarcho-syndicalism', with both terms often used interchangeably by some commentators. One useful description of the term 'syndicalism' has been provided by Wayne Thorpe:

[It] ... refers to those trade union organisations that shared a number of characteristics: they viewed class conflict as inevitable under capitalism; they espoused not only short-term goals but also long-term revolutionary objectives, especially the inauguration of a collecdvised, worker-managed socio-economic order. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.