Global Anarchism and Syndicalism: Theory, History, Resistance

By van der Walt, Lucien | Anarchist Studies, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Global Anarchism and Syndicalism: Theory, History, Resistance


van der Walt, Lucien, Anarchist Studies


A preliminary note on terms

Please note that when I use the term 'syndicalism', here I am using it in the English sense of specifically meaning revolutionary syndicalism and/ or anarcho-syndicalism, not in the Romance language sense of meaning unions in general. And when I just say 'anarchism', I am usually including 'syndicalism' (both anarcho- and revolutionary syndicalism) because it's a variant of anarchism. Revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalism, are forms of anarchist trade unionism, rooted in the anarchist tradition, constituting strategies for anarchism, rather than a separate ideology or movement.

One of the key issues that must be addressed for a project like this - a project which looks at anarchism and seeks to do so in a truly global and planetary way, rather than through a narrow focus on parts of Europe (which is how the history of anarchism is often done) - is that you have to think very carefully how you define the subject. So, if we are to discuss 'anarchism,' we need to have a clear definition, and this is where we come up against some serious problems in the existing literature.

WHAT IS 'ANARCHISM' ANYWAY?

The issue of where you draw the boundary around 'anarchism' is very important. It is important to the analysis and the research: I am not talking about drawing an arbitrary boundary, just to be exclusive for its own sake.

The problem with a loose definition is that you do not have a clear subject of study; inclusion and exclusion become vague, arbitrary and often absurd. There is, in English, a well-known survey of anarchism by Peter Marshall. This is an important and insightful book. But it defines anarchism very loosely: basically to be anarchist is to be against 'authority', especially the 'authority' of the state. 'Authority' is not really defined here, and also, as I will show later, just being against the state, for whatever reason, by no means provides a reasonable basis to define something or someone as 'anarchist'.

Using this approach, we find Marshall including in his survey of anarchism the neo-liberal Margaret Thatcher, as a so-called 'anarcho-capitalist', because she opposed state intervention and welfare,1 as well as the Marxist-Leninist Che Guevara, because Guevara was mildly critical of some of the bureaucratisation of the Castro regime, fostered a 'libertarian spirit', and played a 'creative' role in the 1960s. But these were people who embraced the state, in principle, even if they were against certain state forms.

And remember, Thatcher played a key role in breaking the British welfare state and trade unions, in driving down wages and closing industries, and in shifting income to the rich. For her, being against the state merely meant being against the interventions of the state in the free market. She was perfectly happy to use the state to beat up protestors, strikers, to invade the Falklands. As for Guevara, we are talking here about a man who admired Joseph Stalin, who worked with the Russian dictatorship, who helped erect a one-party state with a secret police, in Cuba. So, yes, he was mildly critical of some elements of the Castro regime, but it's a regime that he, of course, helped construct and helped run, a regime he never repudiated.

Not just 'Anti-State'

But if we just define anarchism as being 'against' the state and against 'imposed political authority' like Marshall, and then use the notion of being 'against' the state in a very loose and vague way (and here, it obviously does not even entail wanting the abolition of the state, but just some changes in the state), then it is logical to include Guevara and Thatcher.

But if, by the same token, we can logically have a study of anarchism, like that of Marshall on anarchism, that is comfortable including neo-liberals and Marxist- Leninists as part of the story anarchism, then we have a logical problem.

Specifically, if we define anarchism loosely, as mere anti-statism, or maybe as a vague commitment to 'freedom' of 'the individual', then it becomes very difficult to consistently distinguish it from other ideologies - not least, from neo-liberalism and Marxism-Leninism. …

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